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Will a Looming Subway Crisis Bring New York City Congestion Pricing?

A combination of a decaying subway system, low gas prices, and ride-hailing services has made traffic in Manhattan worse than ever.
Traffic moves along 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan.

Traffic moves along 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan.

They said this time would be different—just like the last time. But congestion pricing finally looks poised for arrival in New York City.

Leaders in the New York state Senate and Assembly are expected to approve charging fees on vehicles entering the most trafficked parts of Manhattan, the New York Times reported on Monday. If the measure in Governor Andrew Cuomo's budget gets the green light by the April 1st deadline, New York City would be the first place in the United States to adopt the policy known as congestion pricing.

It's been a long time coming. Thanks to low gas prices, a growing populous, and the meteoric rise of ride-hailing converging with a decaying subway, traffic is noticeably worse in midtown Manhattan than even a few years ago. As of last year, average car speeds fell to 4.7 mph, not much faster than walking. It's been estimated that such slow-downs cost the metro-area economy some $20 billion a year, and they result in rising vehicle emissions.

Meanwhile, the subway's on-time performance is still 13 percent worse than it was in 2012, thanks to a host of maintenance delays and sorely needed upgrades that will take billions of dollars and years to resolve.

Enter congestion pricing, the policy prescription beloved by every transportation wonk. Early adopters such as London, Stockholm, and Singapore have proven that pricing packed roads is a viable way to cut down driver demand—perhaps the only way, since widening roads usually induces more of it. Traffic in London's city center fell 39 percent between 2002 and 2014 after it cordoned off a fee zone. It has since seen a rise in congestion, pushing leaders to adopt an "ultra low emissions zone" that charges all combustion-engine vehicles an additional £12.50 to enter.

The hold-up in New York has been a matter of politics. The last serious attempt at passing a congestion pricing plan was under Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City in 2008. But a lack of support in the state Assembly meant it never even saw a vote, partly due to concerns that commuters in the outer boroughs would be disproportionately hurt by the proposed $8 fee to enter the busiest parts of Manhattan. A related criticism, that congestion pricing is regressive and would saddle the poor, has been current Mayor Bill de Blasio's reasoning for his own lack of support. For months, he has advocated for a "millionaire's tax" to generate subway revenues instead.

But the landscape has been shifting. Cuomo first voiced support for the concept of tolling midtown in 2017 (amid the so-called "summer of hell" aboard New York's various rail lines), and commissioned a robust plan that outlined how to fix the city's transportation landscape. That "FixNYC" plan included a charge for cars entering Manhattan, an idea de Blasio rejected. Advocates had hoped that the governor's moves were a sign that congestion pricing would make it into his 2018 budget. But it was an election year, and state representatives facing an election shied from a real debate about how it would work. Instead, New Yorkers got hit with surcharges on taxi and Uber trips (roughly the cost of a subway fare) into the heart of Manhattan.

"It's a phase-in on congestion pricing," Cuomo said at the time.

And it might have been a way to test the waters politically for Cuomo, who is among the country's most effective political dealmakers when he chooses to be. "Without him pushing and pushing and driving and driving, this would not be happening," says Charles Komanoff, an author and activist who has closely covered the congestion pricing debate for Streetsblog and other publications. This time, the Blue Wave of the 2018 election served in the governor's favor. For just the third time in 50 years, Democrats—many of them young, progressive, and themselves transit riders—gained control of the state Senate last year. Democrats had already dominated the Assembly.

Meanwhile, transit service has scarcely improved. In earlier eras when a congestion pricing measure was attempted, "conditions on the subway had not deteriorated to the point they're at today," says Kathryn S. Wylde, the chief executive officer and president of the Partnership for New York, a group representing local businesses that has long advocated for a road pricing plan. Local advocacy groups kept up the pressure in rallies and campaigns like #FixTheSubways and #CuomosMTA. Pro-business groups like Wylde's came out with hearty endorsements, as did anti-poverty groups, including the venerated Community Service Society, which published a statement with research rejecting the mayor's position that the fee would harm the poor. The organization wrote:

We found that only three percent of the city's low-income working outer-borough residents (with incomes below 200 percent of poverty) would potentially pay a congestion fee as part of their daily commute. This compares with 61 percent who rely on public transit and would theoretically benefit from a congestion pricing plan that supports both improved transit services and fare discounts.

With all of these elements in place, de Blasio has finally warmed up to congestion pricing. Last month, in a rare union between a mayor and governor whose relationship has been largely antagonistic, the leaders jointly released a 10-point plan to reorganize and fund the Metropolitan Transit Authority that included tolling program for Manhattan's central business district. The plan is projected to raise $1 billion per year, which would be enough to back $15 billion in transit bonds for MTA projects through 2024. And now, the votes in the state Senate and Assembly are reportedly in line to pass the measure.

Beyond rough revenue projections and a projected start date of 2021, details are scarce on what the plan would mean for New Yorkers. How much would the charge be per vehicle? What streets might be exempted from the midtown swath? Would fees be lower at non-peak hours, as with many congestion pricing schemes? And would lower-income drivers be eligible for reduced fees? Some of these questions are to be determined during the budget negotiations, and others by a new oversight committee appointed by Cuomo after the law is set.

Bruce Schaller, a transportation consultant and former city commissioner, points out that the debate has largely coalesced around generating revenue for the MTA, rather than the implied purpose of congestion pricing, which is alleviating gridlock—and, by extension, improving road safety, air quality, and carbon emissions. That was an "artful" move on Cuomo's part, he says. By de-prioritizing those aspects, congestion pricing "becomes a simple calculation of who you don't charge and what that costs you in lost revenue," Schaller says. For elected leaders, "it becomes a simple political tradeoff."

Of course, the specifics will determine how effective and lucrative the policy turns out to be.

But if New York finally bites, it may embolden other cities around the U.S. Virtually every major city has debated what the idea might look like locally, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Chicago, and Boston. Once outsiders see a year's worth of covetable results in New York—fresh cash to pay for transit fixes, measurably improved traffic—"they're likely to be enthusiastic about trying it themselves," Wylde says.

Then again, New York City is a town where half of commuters get around on transit, making the state's political calculation different than most. It has taken a decade to get the proper political stars aligned to pass congestion pricing, if it makes it into the New York State budget next week. Most cities are far more car-reliant, and will likely still face tough odds slapping fees on the transportation mode that most Americans heavily rely on.

But with the vast majority of public bus and rail systems in decline, other U.S. cities could draw inspiration from the relentless energy and public attention that advocates and reporters have created to call attention to the cracks in the Big Apple's transit spine. Says Schaller: "What changed was the subway crisis."

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.