The Federal Highway Administration has ruled that the state must conduct an environmental assessment of its proposal for a congestion pricing traffic plan for Midtown and Downtown Manhattan.
The state is seeking to set up tolls for vehicles entering Manhattan below 60th Street or crossing below 60th from the north. Supporters say it will raise billions for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and reduce both traffic congestion and automobile pollution.
The FHWA said in Tuesday’s announcement that the proposal calls for a once-per-day variable fee.
Critics call it just another tax on businesses and drivers.
FHWA officials had previously explained that New York must become part of the agency’s Value Pricing Pilot Program to be able to implement congestion pricing. Entering the program automatically triggers a review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
“The FHWA looks forward to assisting New York so we can arrive at a prompt and informed NEPA determination on this important and precedent-setting project,” said acting Federal Highway Administrator Stephanie Pollack. “This approach will ensure that the public participates as local and state leaders explore new possibilities for reducing congestion, improving air quality and investing in transit to increase ridership.”
She said an environmental assessment generally requires less time to complete than a more stringent environmental impact statement should no significant impacts be identified.
Proponents believe it will reduce vehicle congestion in Manhattan while generating $15 billion over four years for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for needed improvements in the existing transit system.
If implemented, the proposal would become the nation’s first cordon congestion pricing toll zone of its size.
Numerous New York officials repeatedly accused President Donald Trump’s administration of dragging its feet on the application process. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) was the most vociferous.
MTA Chairman and Patrick Foye, on the other hand, thanked President Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a prepared statement on Tuesday for pushing the study forward. Foye said a healthy MTA is an essential part of the city’s post-Covid-19 comeback.
“Mass transit is also the great equalizer, and Central Business District Tolling will ensure that we have the funding needed to move forward with our historic $51.5 billion Capital Program to modernize the system so that it works better for all of us,” Foye said.
The plan, of course, is not without its detractors.
Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows), who has been opposed to congestion pricing from the beginning, said Tuesday’s announcement hasn’t changed that. But he also said it is necessary to delay implementation even if there is ultimate federal approval.
“I understand it’s state law,” Weprin told the Chronicle Tuesday evening. “But I am going to do everything I can do to fight and to delay implementation as long as possible because New York is still recovering from a pandemic, and it is going to be for at least a couple of years. I don’t feel this is the time to be burdening drivers of cars and small businesses with further expenses. ... I don’t believe it’s the time to tax businesses for driving into Manhattan.”
While the Queens Chamber of Commerce has not historically taken a stand for or against congestion pricing, chamber President and CEO Tom Grech also told the Chronicle on Tuesday that the state should proceed cautiously for now.
“We need to enter a period of wait and see to see how the city comes back before we add more costs and burdens to the drivers of the City of New York,” Grech said in an interview.
Conversely, Betsy Plum, executive director of the Riders Alliance, praised the decision out of Washington.
“Riders welcome the Biden administration’s prompt decision to order an environmental assessment of congestion pricing,” she said in an email. “This accelerated public review will expedite essential new revenue to make New York’s subway system reliable and accessible.”
Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, an organization that promotes commerce in the city, said in an email to the Chronicle that her group also is on board.
“The Partnership supports congestion pricing as the best way to reduce excess traffic congestion, which costs city employers and workers about $20 billion a year in lost travel time, excess fuel and general inefficiency,” Wylde said.
“Federal environmental assessment will find that this is a means to reduce greenhouse gas, improve health, and generate much needed revenues for the MTA. Covid-19 has reduced vehicular traffic and promoted new uses of our streets. Congestion pricing will help maintain these benefits in the post-pandemic world,” she added.