The pandemic is giving new life to plans across the U.S. to charge drivers a European-style toll to drive into congested downtowns, in hopes of boosting Covid-starved transit systems.
New York has gotten the Biden administration’s promise to expedite a proposal that would charge motorists when they enter an urban core. (One past proposal would have charged trucks a $25 entrance fee.) San Francisco is considering a toll that could go as high as $14. And Los Angeles has been studying the feasibility of a traffic reduction plan that includes this kind of congestion pricing for inbound traffic.
Fluctuating tolls to drive into downtowns are already a reality of daily life in cities like London and Stockholm, but they’ve been anathema in the United States until recently. However, the proposals are gathering steam as cities look for new sources of cash to replenish transit agency budgets devastated by a year of Covid-19 lockdowns. Another impetus is the urgency to blunt climate change, a crisis driven in part by cars’ and trucks’ tailpipe exhaust.
Beyond revenues, supporters of the concept say it would mean cleaner air and eventually improved train and bus service. But the idea of having to pay a vehicle tax is still going to be a hard sell with many Americans.
“Given the severe financial damage the pandemic-related deficits are for the MTA … the availability and presence of congestion pricing has never been more critical,” said Pat Foye, chair and CEO of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “I think that other states and cities and transit agencies around the country are watching New York and the MTA, which are leaders on this.”
New York has tried before to implement its congestion pricing plan, which it estimates would raise $1 billion annually for transit by charging people for driving cars into Manhattan’s most congested zone. The current round hasn’t set a price range yet, but past proposals have recommended charging $12 to $14 for cars and $25 for trucks, though prices would fluctuate based on the time of day.
In the past it has faced opposition from Albany, and from the Trump administration, which wouldn’t even tell the city what kind of environmental review it needed to move forward. WIth Joe Biden now president, transit leaders in Manhattan are banking on being able to push the plan forward.
An official from New York’s MTA announced at the authority’s monthly board meeting last month that FHWA has let them know “that they are going to fast track our environmental process.” This will provide the MTA with information on what kind of environmental review they must conduct to implement congestion pricing, a major step toward putting together the program. The MTA had sought that information from the Trump administration, but DOT held up the process.
“The message was they got the message … that it was cynical that the Trump administration sat on it and didn’t let us advance central business district tolling … and that they were going to move it very quickly,” said Janno Lieber, chief development officer at the MTA.
MTA leaders have regularly referenced the role congestion pricing could play in funding capital projects as it projects $8 billion in deficits from the economic fallout of the pandemic — which hasn’t been fully ameliorated by federal aid packages.
Though MTA’s push mostly comes from a desire for revenue, other cities are hoping to use congestion pricing plans to help influence driving patterns and ease clogged, polluted streets in busy areas — a message that aligns with Biden’s intense focus on combating climate change.
San Francisco is studying a fee to enter downtown that would range from free to $14, depending on household income, disabilities and other factors.
Tilly Chang, executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, said they are “really excited” about New York.
“We’ve seen, of course, road pricing in this form in other places, in Singapore, London and Stockholm, but I think for New York to pioneer the system and the policies is truly going to be eye-opening for folks — and how they’re designing it is of high interest to all of us,” Chang said.
A breakthrough in New York would provide a precedent for how the federal environmental review works, including how to gain a needed exemption to the usual ban on tolling roads that receive federal dollars, which some cities will need to push their plans forward. It could also provide a blueprint for working through a barrage of thorny local issues, like how to price the tolls and provide for discounts or exemptions for certain drivers.
A yet-to-be-named traffic mobility review board will be tasked with figuring out the exact mechanisms for congestion pricing in New York, including putting together a variable pricing system that adjusts for rush hour. Public hearings will be held.
Though the federal green light is important, earlier attempts to move toward congestion pricing have stumbled over unrelated matters, in New York and elsewhere. In San Francisco, officials got a state bill passed in 2019 that would have let them put a toll on the tourist-clogged Lombard Street, but Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed it over equity concerns.
“I’d give better than a 50-50 shot of political shenanigans,” said Sam Schwartz, a New York-based transit consultant who worked on past congestion pricing campaigns. “But I’m optimistic the legislation and a plan will prevail. I think the Covid crisis has led to a transit crisis, and I think we need more money than ever and will have public support this time around.”
Still, Schwartz and other experts predict a fight for exemptions among essential workers and worry that carveouts could chip away at the toll structure.
But without a method for exempting low-income drivers and others, the plan may not fly. Some cities, including LA, already have a mechanism for charging low-income drivers less on tolls, but other entities, like Oregon DOT, are just beginning to consider how they’d do it.
“Unlike transit, where transit has a menu of options for students, seniors, tolls really don’t because we’re really focused on the vehicle, not the people,” said Lucinda Broussard, tolling program director at Oregon DOT. “And now you’re asking us to kind of get into your life, how much money do you make… Who’s keeping those records? That’s not really what a toll agency or a DOT does.“
Still, equity has long been one of the selling points for congestion pricing, as it charges drivers to fund improvements to transit. And equity, as well as climate, are two of the main pillars of the Biden administration’s agenda.
And while the specter of rising congestion remains a major argument among advocates for congestion pricing, transit leaders said the need for a reliable revenue stream to fund mass transit could help push the plan forward.
The New York legislature approved congestion pricing for entering Manhattan’s central business district after the 2017 “Summer of Hell,” when the MTA suffered significant delays after failing to fund much-needed service upgrades. Since then, MTA leaders have regularly referenced the role congestion pricing could play in funding capital projects as it projects $8 billion in deficits from the economic fallout of the pandemic.
“The logic of congestion pricing was driven by the needs of mass transit and those needs have only intensified with the pandemic,” said Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University.
New York’s $51.5 billion capital plan is predicated on congestion pricing generating $1 billion annually.
Some worry that the pandemic has disrupted traditional traffic patterns, making it more difficult to set up a pricing structure that takes advantage of rush hour traffic.
“The great irony here is we have a very supportive Department of Transportation, and we have a supportive state legislature,” Moss said. But now this is going to be a decision that has to adjust to the new economic realities of the New York region.”
Chang of San Francisco County Transportation Authority said, though, that even though traffic has changed, there’s still a need for a congestion plan.
“There’s an unintuitive sense that during a major recession, as right now, that we don’t need to manage demand and that there’s no congestion,” said Chang, whose agency has created a “Covid-era congestion tracker” to demonstrate how traffic is rebounding on specific streets. “What we’re seeing, already, evidence of is that there may be an even more pronounced response in terms of folks reaching for their keys.”
Leaders in Los Angeles, who have also been studying the feasibility of a traffic reduction plan that includes congestion pricing, agree.
“With Covid-19, it’s reduced traffic in the short term,” LA Metro CEO Phil Washington said at a recent online meeting about the plan. “But the long-term scenario in our region, as all of you know, is really increased population and increased congestion. If we do not do anything, what we’re looking at is total gridlock.”
And if congestion pricing is going to happen, this may be the moment.
After quashing a New York City effort in 2008, Albany reversed course in 2019 and approved a congestion pricing plan for the city. Few people understand the issues and the urgency as well as Polly Trottenberg, who served for seven years as NYC DOT Commissioner and whom Biden has nominated to be deputy Transportation secretary. Trottenberg also used to work for now-Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, another pricing advocate who recently got a big promotion. And while the new head of the Federal Highway Administration, Stephanie Pollack, opposed a variable pricing plan in Boston while she ran MassDOT, she has already signaled to New York that she wants to work with them to get it done.
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