Updated: Jan. 19, 2023, 6:17 p.m. | Published: Jan. 19, 2023, 5:16 p.m.
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — The fight against the MTA’s proposed congestion pricing program rages on.
On Thursday, two federal lawmakers, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) and Rep. Mike Lawler (NY-17), announced new bipartisan legislation intended to protect New York and New Jersey drivers from potential congestion pricing tolls.
The legislation, known as the Anti-Congestion Tax Act, would prohibit the U.S. Department of Transportation from awarding any new capital investment grants to MTA projects in New York until drivers from all New Jersey and New York crossings into Manhattan receive exemptions from any congestion pricing fees.
Congestion pricing refers to the use of electronic tolling to charge vehicles for entering certain areas during peak commuting hours, ideally resulting in reduced traffic congestion and increased revenue for transit-oriented projects.
Additionally, the legislation, if passed, would amend the U.S. tax code to offer commuters a federal tax credit at the end of the year equal to the amount they paid in congestion pricing fees.
“Today, I’m proud to stand with Congressman Gottheimer as we reintroduce this bipartisan piece of legislation to prevent the MTA from taking any more money out of the pockets of commuters who have no choice but to travel by car. Billions of dollars of waste, fraud and abuse exists at the MTA. Where did that money go? Until they get their house in order and stop this cash grab, they shouldn’t get another dime in capital grant money,” Lawler said.
However, Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-Staten Island/South Brooklyn) said the plan wouldn’t be beneficial to Staten Islanders.
“I appreciate my colleagues’ intentions but this bill needs work to ensure my constituents are not short changed before it earns my support. First and foremost, those who live within the city of New York should be exempt because no one should have to pay a congestion tax to enter another borough in the city in which they live.”
In August, the MTA released the environmental assessment for New York City’s proposed congestion pricing program, giving drivers an in-depth look at how much they could be charged to drive into Manhattan’s Central Business District (CBD).
The document highlights seven different tolling scenarios, with toll rates ranging anywhere from $9 to $23 during peak periods and from $5 to $12 during overnight hours, depending on the selected scenario.
The highest toll rates would be implemented in the scenarios that offer additional credits, caps and exemptions to certain vehicles.
“New York City and the MTA are playing Russian roulette with their economy, and are willing to stick it to all of those hard-working commuters from Jersey, the outer boroughs, and the New York City suburbs, like my friend Congressman Lawler represents, with their absurd $23 a day Congestion Tax plan,” Gottheimer said.
“Just read MTA spelled backwards and it tells you exactly how the MTA looks at New Jersey, outer boroughs, and other suburban New York drivers right now: as their personal ATM. Enough is enough,” he added.
In reference to the potential $23 congestion pricing fee, representatives from the MTA have repeatedly emphasized that tolling scenarios outlined in the environmental assessment are hypothetical, and if the program were to get federal approval, the Traffic Mobility Review Board would develop recommendations for toll rates, as well as any credits, discounts,or exemptions, and then present the recommendations to the MTA board for consideration.
John J. McCarthy, MTA chief of external relations, took aim at Rep. Lawler and highlighted the benefits of the potential congestion pricing program.
“Surely from his time in Albany Congressman Lawler is aware that congestion pricing is established New York State law. Anyone serious about the environment and reducing gridlock understands that congestion pricing is good for the environment, good for getting fire trucks, buses and delivery vehicles through the city, and good for the 90% of people who depend on mass transit,” McCarthy said.
When asked about the legislation at an unrelated Thursday event, Gov. Kathy Hochul said that the state is undeterred by opponents of congestion pricing and emphasized the need for the controversial program.
“It is moving on the path forward. We’re not deterred by people holding press conferences, I assure you, regardless of what happens in the House of Representatives that would have to get through the United States Senate with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer,” Hochul said.
“So, we believe in congestion pricing, number one, to protect our environment. It’s critical. And secondly, the congestion that we are experiencing in places like Manhattan are not sustainable. It becomes paralyzing, whether it’s emergency vehicles or delivery trucks or the people who live there. But also it’s also a source of funding so we can continue investing in what is the lifeblood of the New York City region, which is our MTA,” the governor added.
MORE ON CONGESTION PRICING
As part of the $175 billion state budget approved on April 1, 2019, the MTA’s Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA) has been authorized to establish the Central District Business Tolling Program (CBDTP), which would charge travelers a variable fee for driving into Manhattan’s Central Business District, defined as any area south of 61st Street.
Revenue generated from the program will be bonded against and placed in a designated MTA “lockbox” to fund capital improvements to the city’s ailing mass transit system.
The program is expected to generate $1 billion annually, which will be used to secure $15 billion in bonds for repairs and improvements to the public transportation system.
The electronic tolling system will operate similarly to the cashless tolling system on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, where overhead sensors read drivers’ E-ZPass tags and administer the fee directly to their account.
In the case of non-E-ZPass drivers, the overhead cameras would photograph their license plate, and a bill would be mailed to them directly.
Non-E-ZPass drivers could be subject to a higher fee similar to the “tolls by mail” option that charges drivers higher toll rates on the agency’s bridges and tunnels for those without E-ZPass.
The increased price would be justified by the administrative costs of processing and billing the driver directly.
In October 2019, the MTA selected TransCore to design, construct, operate and maintain the infrastructure and tolling equipment required for the congestion pricing program.
The company is expected to install the majority of toll collection equipment on existing poles and mast arms “as to have a minimal footprint and fit within existing streetscapes.”
Currently, emergency vehicles and those carrying people with disabilities are the only exemptions from the program, with tax credits in place for residents living within the CBD and earning less than $60,000.
Drivers on the FDR Drive, West Side Highway and the sections of the Battery Park Underpass and Hugh Carey Tunnel that connect the two will not be subject to tolls, unless exiting into the CBD.
Personal vehicles would only be charged once per day, while commercial and other vehicles could be subject to numerous daily charges.
NEXT STEPS FOR CONGESTION PRICING
Following the release of the environmental assessment in August, officials from both New York and New Jersey, including Gottheimer, have been pressing the federal government to require a longer, more thorough environmental impact statement to better understand the potential effects of implementation.
Thus far, the federal government has only required the MTA to complete an abbreviated environmental assessment, which is the quicker of the two possible environmental review processes.
Now that the six-week public comment period for the environmental assessment has been completed, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is reviewing public feedback, and will either issue a finding of no significant impact (FONSI), allowing the program to proceed, or a request for an environmental impact statement, which will require additional study.
If the FHWA approves the project, the program is expected to be implemented within 310 days, with MTA officials having said in March that toll collection is expected to begin by the end of 2023.
However, if the federal government requests an environmental impact statement, something elected officials have been pushing for, the project would need to be studied more thoroughly, likely delaying implementation past the expected timeline.
The environmental assessment outlined seven different tolling scenarios, with higher tolls rates, up to $23 during peak hours, in the scenarios that offer additional credits, caps and exemptions to certain vehicles.
Under all the scenarios described below, personal cars, motorcycles and commercial vans would be capped at one CBD toll per day, though other vehicles may be charged multiple times.
None of the scenarios outlined would provide an additional credit for drivers who cross the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge before moving into the city, something the borough’s elected officials have pushed for since the program was first proposed.
In recent months, local officials have been pushing for the state to allow residents to vote on whether the potential program is implemented.
In November, Councilman Joseph Borelli (R-South Shore), Councilman David Carr (R-Mid-Island) Malliotakis gathered on the steps of City Hall to ask the governor to support a statewide referendum that would allow New Yorkers to vote on the potential program before it could be implemented.
“Elected officials and dozens of organizations, including those representing taxi and livery drivers and trade and civic associations, as well as thousands of private citizens, have voiced their strong opposition to the Central Business District tolling plan,” the group wrote in a letter to Hochul.
“Among their concerns are the disproportionate harm this plan will have on working- and middle-class New Yorkers; the negative environmental and financial impacts of significantly increased traffic in outerborough communities; and the likely increase of the costs of goods and services to offset the exorbitant tolls,” the letter continued.
In December, Staten Island’s three city legislators introduced a City Council resolution calling for state lawmakers to put the congestion pricing plan through the state ballot process.
“Our plan is nothing more than a horrid scheme to charge motorists a new $5,000 annual fee, despite the MTA’s own study suggesting our benefits would be negligible,” Borelli said. “Now that the study is in print and accessible to the public, the governor must put it on the ballot and let voters decide if it’s worth it.”