New York City Needs Congestion Pricing Now More Than Ever

The strategy would save money, curb pollution, and fix our crumbling transit system in a way that’s fair and equitable for all New Yorkers.
Credit: dbimages/Alamy

The strategy would save money, curb pollution, and fix our crumbling transit system in a way that’s fair and equitable for all New Yorkers.

If it feels like you’ve been experiencing more subway delays lately, you’re not alone. New York City’s public transit system is a mess—and getting worse.

The subway’s on-time performance has slid downhill, due in large part to frequent breakdowns and the deterioration of essential infrastructure. Aboveground, the rush-hour situation isn’t much better. Cars and trucks clog the city’s streets, polluting our air and creating a nightmare for emergency vehicles. The average speed of traffic in Midtown Manhattan has been declining and was recently clocked at under five miles an hour. According to a study released last month by the Partnership for New York City, this near-gridlock is costing the region an estimated $20 billion in lost economic activity every year.

Meanwhile, bus riders also have reason to complain. Bus bunching, service delays, and ancient bus routes that don’t meet current needs explain why bus ridership has plunged in recent years, despite the city’s growing population.

But now, there’s a ray of hope: A comprehensive, progressive congestion pricing strategy currently being discussed could help resolve all these issues simultaneously. The Move NY Fair Plan, backed by a diverse coalition of citizens, advocates, planners, political leaders, labor unions, and more, proposes a simple cordon-style charging system that would collect congestion fees from motorists where transit options are most available (like the Manhattan central business district) and lower tolls where transit is either not available or a less viable option (like the Verrazano Bridge crossing between Staten Island and Brooklyn).

The strategy would create a direct and stable funding stream of as much as $1.5 billion a year to repair, maintain, upgrade, and expand the city’s grossly under-resourced and overburdened public transit system. It would also generate hundreds of millions of dollars every year for needed road and bridge repairs and provide funding to fill critical outer-borough and suburban transit gaps.

And by discouraging unnecessary vehicle travel and encouraging those who do drive to take the shortest routes possible, the pricing plan could reduce congestion by as much as 15 percent and make traffic 20 percent faster in the dense Manhattan core, all while reducing air pollution, making the streets safer for pedestrians, and clearing the way for emergency vehicles. (A 15-year-old congestion pricing program in London, while not a panacea, offers evidence―take a look here―of how this strategy can take on seemingly intractable urban transportation problems and succeed.)

Significantly, the Move NY Fair Plan includes elements to ensure that congestion pricing would be fair and equitable, a goal that NRDC strongly shares. For example, a key element of the plan would annually allocate $125 million of congestion pricing revenue to implement a reduced-fare program for low-income transit users, similar to the discount currently offered to senior citizens.

Moreover, according to an October 2017 report from the Community Service Society (New York City’s leading anti-poverty group), only 2 percent of the city’s working poor from the outer boroughs would likely be subject to the congestion fee, while 58 percent of the outer-borough working poor rely on public transit and would therefore benefit from congestion pricing.

We can take advantage of this progressive, forward-looking solution, but time is of the essence. The longer we wait to fix our crumbling transit system or to address our overwhelming congestion problems, the more difficult the solutions become. So it was encouraging when Governor Cuomo’s Fix NYC Advisory Panel Report, released in January of this year, incorporated several key elements of the NRDC-endorsed Move NY Fair Plan.

We now have before us a rare opportunity to make a lasting change that benefits all New Yorkers—and we must seize it. As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told the New York Times last year, “Congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come.” We couldn’t agree more.

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