Cuomo Hits the Bullseye with Congestion Pricing Push

Governor Andrew Cuomo is pulling out all the stops to secure passage of congestion pricing and help rescue New York’s long-neglected public transit system.
Credit: Eric Goldstein


The prospects for congestion pricing in New York City have brightened considerably, thanks to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s full-out endorsement of the strategy and his decision to provide for it in his recently-released state budget proposal.

The measure—a long-standing NRDC priority—is designed to funnel billions of dollars into the region’s beleaguered public transit network and cut traffic congestion in the nation’s most densely populated central business district.

Under the congestion pricing plan, electronic equipment would be installed to enable tolling of motor vehicles entering New York City’s Central Business District, from 60th Street south to Manhattan’s southern tip.   

The benefits of such an approach would be three-fold: improved traffic flow in the most congested part of New York City; an overall reduction in vehicle miles traveled, which means reductions in air pollution and global warming emissions; and—most importantly—a steady, significant source of funding for the downstate public transportation network.

There is near universal agreement that the need for a significant, stable source of new funding for public transportation is a top regional priority.

New York’s public transit system is, as the Governor has stated, “in crisis.”

As a recent New York State-created advisory panel of experts found:

  • many subway lines have been operating at capacity during rush hours;
  • damage to the lower Manhattan subway infrastructure from the 9/11 attack and from Hurricane Sandy has diverted attention and investment away from meeting the substantial, ongoing capital needs of the rest of the network, including such subway components as signals, tracks, power supply and cars;
  • and customer dissatisfaction with delays and breakdowns has peaked in recent years.

Moreover, bus service throughout the city and the region has also had big problems. Cross-town bus travel has remained excruciatingly slow and many neighborhoods outside of Manhattan and throughout the MTA’s service area have for years been starved for reliable bus service.

While the details have yet to be worked out, the Governor’s proposal could generate an estimated 15 billion dollars for the MTA’s next five-year capital plan; these funds would be plowed back into the region’s subway, bus and commuter rail system. (The MTA has estimated capital funding needs for its 2020-2024 five-year plan at 41 to 60 billion dollars. So additional funding sources will be needed to close the gap even if the Governor’s congestion pricing plan is approved.)

WILL THEY STAND UP FOR PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION? Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins can save the system by spearheading passage of congestion pricing.

A primary argument of those who oppose congestion pricing is that the strategy is regressive. This myth has been thoroughly debunked by the Community Service Society, the City’s leading anti-poverty organization.

A 2017 CSS analysis concluded that only 4% of the city’s outer-borough working residents commute to jobs in Manhattan by motor vehicle and would have to pay a congestion fee. Meanwhile, 56% of outer borough working residents use public transit to get to work and would benefit from the funds generated by congestion pricing. 

The CSS study also found that only 2 per cent of the city’s outer-borough working poor would potentially be subject to the congestion fee, while 58 percent of the outer-borough working poor rely on public transit and could benefit from congestion pricing. 

Governor Cuomo stated the issue bluntly at a recent meeting of the Association for a Better New York meeting. The real choice, he said, is between congestion pricing and 30% transit fare and toll increases. “It’s A or B, because there is no C. If the public understands the critical choice their elected officials are making, congestion pricing will prevail,” he stated.

And, indeed, a January 2019 public poll revealed that a majority of New Yorkers now favor congestion pricing to support the region’s public transit. The Siena College poll, reported in the Daily News, found that New Yorkers around the state supported congestion pricing by a 52% to 39% margin. And even in the suburbs, where residents who drive into the CBD would have to pay the charge, the congestion pricing plan was supported 47% to 44%.

Despite all this, adoption of congestion pricing by the New York State Legislature is no sure thing. Some state legislators representing parts of the New York metropolitan area remain opposed to the plan. They are standing up, these legislators say, for the rights of motorists from their districts to drive into Manhattan. 

But what will these legislators say to the much larger number of transit riders in their districts who will continue to suffer unpredictable, unreliable service from the region’s subway and bus network if congestion pricing goes down to defeat this Spring?