An Open Letter to NYC Mayor de Blasio on Congestion Pricing

We believe the City and State should advance a congestion pricing strategy that will not only generate ongoing funds for transit, reduce congestion and curb air pollution, but also rationalize the current toll structure by lowering tolls on some city crossings and help low-income New Yorkers afford ever-rising transportation costs.

How to secure funds to rescue and rehabilitate New York City's beleaguered subway, bus and commuter rail system is among the most important policy issues facing the nation's largest city in 2018. And rightly so. NRDC has long advocated for some form of congestion pricing as a New York public transit funding mechanism. We believe the City and State should advance a congestion pricing strategy that will not only generate ongoing funds for transit, reduce congestion and curb air pollution, but also rationalize the current toll structure by lowering tolls on some city crossings and help low-income New Yorkers afford ever-rising transportation costs. In this open letter to NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, NRDC's President, Rhea Suh, and our program staff explain how the Mayor could play a national leadership role in advancing a congestion pricing plan that meets transportation and air quality needs, while fostering fairness and equity for all New Yorkers—goals that we wholeheartedly share.

January 1, 2018

The Honorable Bill de Blasio
Mayor, City of New York
City Hall
New York, New York 10007

Dear Mayor de Blasio:

You have been a friend to New York City’s environment since you first got involved in electoral politics almost 20 years ago. As Mayor, you have continued your predecessor’s commitment to make our city a national leader in sustainability, while commendably adding equity to the equation. And, among other worthy goals, you have pledged to provide New Yorkers with the best air quality of all large U.S. cities by 2030.

Now, as you enter your second and final term in office, you have the opportunity to advance all these objectives while coming to the rescue of our beleaguered transit system and traffic-choked roadways. This is the right time for you to lend your support to the growing effort to implement a fair, rational and progressive congestion pricing strategy for New York City.

Were you to endorse the concept of congestion pricing and work with other elected officials to develop an anti-congestion plan that addresses your broader social concerns, you would delight your allies, surprise your critics and send a powerful message around the nation that you are a mayor who can deliver for his constituents and help resolve even the biggest policy challenges. And all this could be accomplished in a way that would be fully consistent with your focus on equity and fairness for all New Yorkers—concerns we wholeheartedly share.

Why Congestion Pricing Now?

As you know, the region’s subway, bus and commuter rail system is in big trouble. Chronic under-investment has led to frequent delays, breakdowns and deterioration of essential infrastructure. The system desperately needs a substantial capital infusion. With roughly 5.7 million trips taken every weekday, subway riders are counting on their elected officials to coalesce behind one solution for reliable, long-term transit funding before it is too late.

At the same time, congestion in Manhattan continues to pose an obstacle to mobility, economic growth and public safety. Just since 2010, for example, traffic speeds in Manhattan south of 60th Street have declined by 12 per cent. The City’s traffic is estimated to cost the region as much as $20 billion a year in lost economic activity. Millions of New Yorkers are losing countless hours stuck in the gridlock. Buses and emergency vehicles have also been slowed by this congestion—hampering mobility and delaying response time of police, fire and medical personnel.

Making matters worse, perpetual congestion has boosted in-city motor vehicle emissions since cars and trucks emit greater pollution per mile traveled when stuck in stop-and-go traffic. To this must be added the discharges from vehicles whose motorists drive miles out of their way every day to avoid the tolls that have been illogically collected at some, but not all, of the city’s water crossings. All of this contributes to exacerbating chronic lung disease across the city.

The Move NY Fair Plan: A Gold Standard for Congestion Pricing in NYC

Your recently announced anti-congestion plan is a good start. But it is not by itself enough to significantly address these traffic and congestion problems. Rather, implementation of a robust congestion pricing plan could tackle these challenges and provide an opportunity to make city transportation policy more equitable as well. The Move NY Fair Plan is a particularly progressive way to approach congestion pricing. In fact, the plan’s architects deliberately set out to produce a plan that was fair and equitable, with an emphasis on delivering concrete benefits to outer borough residents, drivers and low-income families.

Among other things, the Move NY Fair Plan would:

  • Create a stable, dedicated funding stream of $1.5 billion a year for the city’s subway and bus network by adding tolls where traffic is congested and transit is plentiful, and cutting tolls at each of the MTA’s already-tolled, in-city crossings;
  • Reduce congestion and air pollution by discouraging unnecessary vehicle travel in and around the most densely packed Manhattan core, by rehabilitating transit equipment and improving transit service, and by encouraging motorists who must drive to take the shortest routes to their destinations; and
  • Generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year for in-city road and bridge rehabilitation, with additional funds available for filling transit gaps in the city’s outer boroughs and for improved suburban transit.

Congestion Pricing Can Be Designed to Achieve Equity and Fairness

In recent months, you have expressed the concern that congestion pricing is regressive. In fact, the opposite is true. A close examination of the data by the Community Service Society, the City’s leading anti-poverty organization, indicates that congestion pricing is inherently progressive—even more so if some of the revenue is used to subsidize fares, as the Move NY plan envisions.

In an October 2017 report, the Community Service Society revealed that only 4 per cent of the city’s outer-borough working residents commute to jobs in Manhattan by motor vehicle and would theoretically have to pay a congestion fee, while 56 per cent of out-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 per cent of the outer-borough working poor rely on public transit and could benefit from congestion pricing.

A congestion pricing strategy could be designed to offer exactly the kind of helping hand to the city’s low-income residents that you have long championed. For example, the Move NY congestion pricing plan would provide direct transit relief to needy New Yorkers by allocating $125 million collected from congestion fees to fair relief for low income, transit-riding New Yorkers.

We know that you have advanced the idea of a millionaires’ tax as an alternative method of funding our transit system. But, despite its merits, this tax would not provide the congestion-diluting, pollution-reducing benefits of congestion pricing. And the current make-up of the State Legislature makes it extremely unlikely that a millionaires’ tax would be enacted in 2018. For these and other reasons, congestion pricing has been gaining support from wide-ranging city and state interests in a way that the millionaires’ tax idea simply has not.

To be sure, we have work to do to ensure that the New York State Legislature gets behind an equitable congestion pricing proposal. But your vocal support for congestion pricing would have a powerful influence on the City’s Albany delegation. And your engagement in the negotiations would give you leverage to influence the details of a final congestion pricing plan.

NRDC intends to mobilize tens of thousands of our members and activists to help in getting an equitable congestion pricing measure passed in Albany in 2018.

We hope we can work together with you to ensure the adoption of a congestion pricing plan that generates sufficient revenue, reduces traffic congestion and is fair and equitable to all New Yorkers.

Respectfully submitted,

Rhea Suh, President
Amanda Eaken, Director, Transportation and Climate
Eric A. Goldstein, New York City Environment Director

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