Is Trump Holding Congestion Pricing in New York City Hostage?

The plan would require all vehicles in about half of Manhattan to pay special tolls, but the Federal Highway Administration won’t say what’s the matter.

Traffic moves on 2nd Avenue in the morning hours on March 15, 2019 in New York City. Credit: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

Traffic moves on 2nd Avenue in the morning hours on March 15, 2019 in New York City. Credit: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

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Over the last year and a half, a New York City “congestion pricing” plan awaiting federal approval has seemingly become a political flashpoint, as President Trump and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo have clashed over Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and other issues. 

A spokeswoman for the Federal Highway Administration told Inside Climate News that the proposal is still under review. She added that the plan “requires thorough consideration,” because it would be the first effort by any U.S. city to impose special tolls on passenger vehicles inside a central business district as a means of reducing congestion, encouraging mass transit and fighting pollution. 

Patrick McClellan, policy director at the New York League of Conservation Voters, said congestion pricing is clearly being held hostage. “I think there’s no question that it’s being held up for political reasons,” he said.

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The Federal Highway Administration has been “radio silent” in providing any substantial rationale for the hold-up, McClellan said, adding that its behavior represented “a really inappropriate use of the environmental review process to further a political agenda.”

In April 2019, New York became the first U.S. state to approve congestion pricing, officially known as the Central Business District Tolling Program. The move came over a decade after then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg first proposed the measure in 2007, and amid continued advocacy by environmental organizations that expect it to help reduce city greenhouse gas emissions. 

Similar measures have already shown success in cutting traffic and associated pollution in major cities like London and Stockholm.

In New York, the plan would charge vehicles entering Manhattan below 60th Street, the part of town that represents the region’s largest employment center. Once put in place, is expected to generate $15 billion for the 2020-2024 Capital Plan of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The MTA is the public transit agency that operates North America’s largest transportation network, serving New York City, numerous downstate suburban counties and coastal Connecticut.

With the Covid-19 crisis and without further federal aid from a Republican-controlled Senate, the MTA is facing a bleak financial outlook, forcing it to consider slashing city subway services by 40 percent. Congestion pricing could offer the MTA a critical lifeline for recovery from the pandemic.

To date, the Federal Highway Administration has not informed the MTA what kind of review is needed for the plan to proceed. That’s despite having all the necessary information it requested from the MTA for the agency to do so, said an MTA official.

In a Nov. 11 statement, MTA chairman and CEO Patrick Foye called it “beyond outrageous and cynical that the Trump administration has used a routine environmental review process to hold this environmentally beneficial critical project up.”

Many proponents of congestion pricing are hoping a Biden administration can move the review process for congestion pricing forward, paving the way for its implementation and a more environmentally-friendly New York City post-pandemic.

“Prioritizing bold climate actions like congestion pricing is one way we can ensure a Covid-19 recovery that is green, equitable and resilient,” said Daniel Zarrilli, New York City’s chief climate policy officer.

If implemented, congestion pricing could bring immense climate and environmental benefits, reducing air pollution in a city where the transportation sector comprises approximately 30 percent of citywide greenhouse gas emissions, according to environmentalists.

By injecting new funds into the MTA, and providing incentives for the use of public transit after the pandemic-driven drop in ridership and rebound of vehicle traffic, the measure could also help avert a doomsday scenario for the city’s struggling mass transit system and even make it a national model.

“We need to be leaders on climate action,” said Natalie Cronin, a resident of the city’s Upper East Side and a member of Mom’s Clean Air Force, a community of parents united in protecting children from air pollution and climate change. “Congestion pricing is a good start.”

A Win-Win Solution for Climate and Communities

Along with the more obvious benefits of relieving car-crammed streets, proponents of congestion pricing say it’s an important measure for increasing the equity of city living and advancing environmental justice.

According to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, half of city households own cars, but only 27 percent of the city’s 3.8 million workers commute via car, truck or van. The rates of car ownership are also substantially lower in Manhattan than in any other of the city’s five boroughs: a mere 8 percent of Manhattanites drive to work. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the inequities between vehicle owners and people dependent on mass transit have only become clearer. The city’s subway and bus services have largely serviced essential workers, with women and people of color comprising the majority of regular riders during the height of the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, the city has seen a resurgence in vehicular traffic, as people who can afford to avoid mass transit have sought to mitigate their risk of Covid-19 infection by purchasing cars or relying on for-hire vehicle services.

A survey conducted earlier this year by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign found that 92 percent of survey respondents said they will return to public transit post-Covid-19. 

Renae Reynolds, transportation planner for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, said the organization sees strong “environmental justice potential” in the opportunity congestion pricing provides. It could “establish a dedicated set of funding revenue that could support mass transit” and combat the tailpipe emissions coming from heavy city traffic, which disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color, Reynolds said.

That potential has been waylaid by delay from the Trump administration, which she said had at this point “entered the realm of absurdity.”

To date, the federal government hasn’t provided clear guidance to the MTA over whether congestion pricing scheme requires the completion of a comprehensive environmental impact statement or a shorter environmental assessment, if it requires a review at all, said Kate Slevin, senior vice president of state programs and advocacy for the independent non-profit organization Regional Plan Association.

The association believes a shorter environmental assessment would be more appropriate than an intensive environmental impact statement, she said.

Assuming the plan eventually gets federal approval, the city will still have to work out the details of its congestion pricing. State law requires that the MTA convene a Traffic Mobility Review Board which will recommend toll amounts and a plan for credits, discounts and exemptions. 

Environmentalists have made clear they’re looking for the board to uphold the promises of improved environmental quality and equity when it eventually forms.

Among its 10 recommendations for an effective, equitable and rational congestion pricing scheme in the city, the Regional Plan Association includes limiting user-based exemptions to those already specified by the state Legislature. Those include qualifying emergency vehicles and vehicles transporting people with disabilities. 

Under current policy, central business district residents earning less than $60,000 will also receive a tax credit for any district tolls incurred as part of the plan. 

Reynolds, of the environmental justice alliance, said she wanted to see the congestion pricing scheme “have a hard line of as few exemptions as possible with certain considerations for folks that are from low-income communities that live in this central business district.”

“We don’t want to subsidize folks who can afford to purchase an electric vehicle at the expense of folks that take mass transit,” she said. 

Congestion Pricing is Not a ‘Silver Bullet’

Even as it opens new possibilities, the ascendance of a Biden administration still leaves much to be desired in terms of the city’s public transit, environmentalists said. 

Even if Biden allowed congestion pricing to move forward starting on day one of his presidency, said McClellan, of the New York League of Conservation Voters, it still seemed unlikely that the measure would go into effect before 2022, a year later than expected. 

That timeline could extend even further, if the federal government fails to act.

In the second quarterly update of the MTA’s Annual Disclosure Statement, agency officials wrote last month, referring to the Federal Highway Administration, that “in light of the delays caused by the absence of FHWA approval…implementation of the CBD Tolling Program could be delayed until 2023.”

In the meantime, an MTA official said the organization is working hard to ensure everything is in place to move forward with congestion pricing upon receiving federal approval.

“While we’re more hopeful the Central Business District Tolling Program will move forward under a Biden administration, we continue to await clarity from the feds on what type of environmental review will be required that will help determine when the program will be enacted,” said Ken Lovett, senior advisor to the MTA chairman and CEO.

Zarrilli, the city’s chief climate policy officer, said congestion pricing “remains a priority for the City and something we intend to work closely with the incoming Biden-Harris administration to make a reality as quickly as possible.”

Reynolds cautioned against “seeing congestion pricing as a silver bullet to respond to the MTA’s operation needs,” and said she wants to see the MTA receive the $12 billion in emergency federal funding it requested as relief from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Lovett said the MTA needs such funding “to avoid having to enact a series of draconian service and employee cuts, toll and fare hikes, and a continued freeze of our capital plan.”

If Democrats win the two U.S. Senate runoff elections on the Georgia ballot in January and secure an effective Senate majority, it may increase the MTA’s prospects for federal relief. 

That could have implications well beyond New York, said McClellan, who called the full funding of the MTA’s capital plan, along with congestion pricing, “a national economic issue,” given its importance for creating green jobs. In the midst of a budgetary shortfall, the MTA could have to cancel substantial contracts for transit infrastructural development with vendors across the country.