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Climate

New York Will Soon Get Congestion Pricing — After a 150,000-Year Wait

That’s not an exaggeration, at least by one calculation.

Times Square.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

In late March, the board that oversees New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority cast a final vote to implement congestion pricing. If the plan survives some last-ditch lawsuits, drivers will soon have to cough up $15 to travel into Lower Manhattan during rush hours. The MTA will get billions every year to make capital improvements, the air will be markedly cleaner, the streets notably less congested, and a proposal that was first pitched by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg 17 years ago will have finally been realized.

“I often wonder what our system would have been like if we passed it back in 2008,” MTA board member Haeda Mihaltses, a veteran of the Bloomberg administration, mused just before she cast her vote in favor.

The price of nearly two decades of procrastination over doing something to alleviate the most densely-populated, traffic-snarled place in North America is, indeed, unfathomably high. There’s the billions of dollars of mass transit infrastructure we missed out on, the billions spent on health care from breathing in dirty air.

And then there’s the most precious resource of all. According to one calculation from transport economist and congestion pricing advocate Charles Komanoff, the plan the MTA adopted last month will save drivers, bus passengers, and subway riders a combined 225,000 hours every single day. Here’s a fun thought experiment: If New York had adopted this plan back in 2008, we could have saved ourselves a combined 1,314,000,000 hours, or 150,000 years.

How could implementing something so obviously necessary and routine — anyone who has paid to camp in a National Park or drive on the New Jersey Turnpike understands the concept — take so long? What does it say about how we govern? And what can we learn from it?

“I think it is fair to say that whatever roadblock congestion pricing could have hit, it hit,” Rachael Fauss, a policy director and MTA researcher for the good government group Reinvent Albany, told me. "It was the worst case scenario of timelines if you were to project out: What are the things that could delay this?"

Some of the delays were deliberate: It’s hard enough for lawmakers to summon the courage to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires, so charging drivers money for something that used to be “free,” to fund a transit agency that often conjures delayed trains and decades-long boondoggles in the public’s imagination, was always going to require a fortitude that is in chronically short supply in Albany.When then-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed to pass congestion pricing in 2019, he and his fellow lawmakers wrote into the actual bill that the tolling scheme couldn’t be announced for a year and a half — until after the 2020 election. The same politicians who were supposedly brave enough to vote congestion pricing into law didn’t want anything to do with putting that law into practice.

Then there were the bureaucratic delays. The COVID pandemic, of course, redirected much of the government and forced the MTA into survival mode as subway ridership dropped 90%; suddenly the agency’s most important work was to coordinate lifesaving bailouts from the federal and state governments. Then the Trump administration slow-walked the answer to a key question: Because the congestion pricing plan involved placing tolls on roads built with federal funding, the state needed a sign-off from the federal Department of Transportation. But was congestion pricing the kind of massive infrastructure project that, under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, required an exhaustive Environmental Impact Statement? Could it pass NEPA review with a less thorough Environmental Assessment? Or, given that nothing was actually being built up or torn down, could it be exempt from these reviews altogether?

Two years after the congestion pricing law passed, and months after the plan was supposed to go into effect in early 2021, the newly installed Biden administration finally asked for the middle option, an Environmental Assessment, which the MTA initially said could be done in a matter of months. In actuality, that timeline stretched to 16 months and produced a 4,000-page behemoth that some experts noted was more comprehensive than the average EIS.

Seemingly nothing escaped the MTA’s scrutiny — it even looked at how congestion pricing would affect traffic in the Philadelphia suburbs (not all that much). The results were not exactly shocking: Tolling vehicles entering Lower Manhattan below 60th Street would result in up to 20% fewer vehicles in the Central Business District, improving air quality while also generating $1 billion in revenue for public transit, which could then be used to secure up to $15 billion in bonds. After more than 50 public meetings and 25,000 written comments (60% in favor of the plan), the Biden administration produced a “finding of no significant impact,” meaning that congestion pricing wouldn’t negatively affect the economy, the environment, or the roads.

There was at least one notable benefit that came from doing such a comprehensive, time-intensive review: The MTA found that congestion pricing could cause an increase in truck traffic to the South Bronx for drivers looking to toll shop, which in turn prompted the agency to allocate $200 million to alleviate pollution in some of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, which have shamefully high asthma rates that mostly affect Black and Latine New Yorkers."Is it congestion pricing’s job to remedy those problems? Maybe not," Fauss, of Reinvent Albany, said. "But is it a really important way to correct some past wrongs? Yeah, absolutely."

The MTA’s thoroughness may help protect it from the bad faith lawsuits that have been filed to try and shut down the license plate readers before they go live on June 15. But we’re in the midst of a climate crisis. Why should a 54-year-old law designed to prevent overeager developers from doing things like demolishing neighborhoods to build highways discourage cities and states from enacting dynamic, flexible solutions to cut pollution created by those highways — and fund public transit at the same time? And why should a review of a plan that requires no concrete, no demolition — no actual infrastructure — take three years?

The biggest hurdle congestion pricing had to overcome might have been psychological. Let’s call it "car brain": Even though 85% of commuters who travel into the Central Business District take mass transit, for years, lawmakers and congestion pricing opponents have argued (and in the case of the current New York City Mayor Eric Adams, stillargue) that charging people to drive into Lower Manhattan was a kind of attack on the middle class. In a city where valuable street real estate has been converted into free parking, congestion pricing was portrayed as profaning the sacred rights of "regular" New Yorkers — never mind the fact that just 2% of New York’s working poor will end up paying the tolls. Driving your car wherever you please, it turns out, is quite expensive.

“Elected officials are facing the world from the front seat of a car, whether they’re driving or being driven,” Danny Pearlstein, the policy and communications director at Riders Alliance, one of the most forceful proponents of congestion pricing, told me. Pearlstein added that “bureaucrats who drive to work” probably contributed to the Biden administration’s slow-walking of the approval process, or so he suspects. “They were very cautious about doing something that alters not just, you know, air patterns, or patterns of inequity, but actual commutes,” Pearlstein said.

As a reporter who has covered congestion pricing for nearly a decade, I have learned never to underestimate the power of “car brain” on public policy. As a New Yorker who lives steps from the entrance of the Williamsburg Bridge on the Lower East Side, who watches mothers push strollers through oceans of hot, heavy steel boxes belching poisonous gasses driven by people on a hair trigger, and who has seen our leaders pretend that this is New York, that we are too exceptional to change, I cannot help but go about my day, doing my best to tune out the incessant honking, feeling like the dog engulfed in flames: “This is fine.”

That it took transportation advocates, regional planners, and forward-looking politicians nearly 20 years to enact congestion pricing in New York City — the U.S. municipality perhaps most amenable to it because of its housing density and excellent mass transit system — reveals the daunting task of weaning Americans off the automobile. More than three-quarters of us drive our own personal cars to our jobs.

“The only thing that’s going to change the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans drive to work is not permitting reforms to programs like congestion pricing. It’s permitting reforms to allow dense housing development in metropolitan areas across the country,” Pearlstein said.

“It’s a little bit like a Marxian analysis,” he mused. The crisis must come to a head in order to overthrow the status quo. “In order to adopt congestion pricing, you first have to exacerbate congestion significantly by condensing your built environment.”

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Christopher Robbins

Christopher Robbins is an editor and co-founder at Hell Gate. He spent a decade working for Gothamist, a year at the Village Voice, and has written for New York Magazine and Streetsblog.

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