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Every Question We Could Think of About Congestion Pricing

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Photo: Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

Congestion pricing is (almost definitely) coming to Manhattan this summer, whether you like it or not. Which means a lot of people have a lot of questions, like, Will the subways be crazy? Will 61st Street turn into a line of parking garages? and Why didn’t anyone consult me, individually, about my very specific driving habits? Here, we try to answer all of your most pressing queries.

What is congestion pricing?

Basically exactly what it sounds like: a toll for driving into a heavily congested zone — in this case, Manhattan’s “Central Business District,” which is anything on or below 60th Street. The FDR Drive, the West Side Highway, and parts of the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel are excluded, but you will be tolled if you exit one of these roadways into the zone.

When will it actually go into effect?

June 15, apparently.

So what are the tolls?

The proposed tolls for entering the zone are $15 for cars and $7.50 for motorcycles. Commercial trucks will be charged $24 to $36, depending on their size. Non-commuter buses like tour buses will also pay between $24 to $36. You will not be tolled for exiting or driving within the boundaries of the zone.

And this is only during certain hours, right?

The tolls will be in effect between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends. A much lower toll, $3.25 for passenger vehicles, will be charged during overnight hours.

What about taxis?

Yellow cabs will add $1.25 to passengers’ fare, while Ubers and Lyfts would add $2.50. This includes trips to the zone, from the zone, or entirely within the zone, and the fee applies at all times.

How many times can I be tolled per day?

Passenger vehicles will only be charged once per day. Other vehicles can be charged multiple times.

Okay. Will I get charged if I drive from the Whole Foods in Fidi to the Whole Foods in Times Square, all within the zone?

No.

I’m still worried about traveling inside the zone. I have a lot to do in the zone.

We reached out to the MTA for additional scenarios to relieve your anxiety around in-zone errands. It wrote:

If someone living in Stuyvesant Town drives onto the FDR and then gets off to go to an appointment at Langone, then there would be no Central Business District toll for that trip. Similarly, there would be no toll charged for someone who lives in Battery Park City and drives from their building’s garage onto the West Side Highway, then gets off to park at Madison Square Garden.

What’s up with the tunnel credits?

If you enter the zone through the Lincoln Tunnel, Holland Tunnel, Queens-Midtown Tunnel, or Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, you get money back for already paying the toll charged for entering the tunnel. (The “refund” is $5 for cars, $2.50 for motorcycles, $12 for small trucks and buses, $20 for large trucks and tour buses.)

What other exemptions are there?

They are, admittedly, a little convoluted. Drivers who make under $50,000 and drive to work in the district can get a 50 percent discount after their first ten trips each month. Vehicles transporting people with disabilities as well as emergency vehicles (ambulances, fire trucks) and certain government vehicles (snow plows, garbage trucks) are exempted. In late March, the MTA clarified eligibility and even expanded exemptions, which now include any school bus with a DOE contract, any city-owned fleet vehicle, and any publicly accessible buses with a scheduled service like the Hampton Jitney, Greyhound, and Megabus.

That doesn’t seem like a lot of exemptions.

It’s not! And many people are upset about this. But the MTA maintains, per its toll recommendation report, that by limiting the number of discounts, it can keep the toll rate lower to “consider the interests of the many over the few.”

But a lot of people drive for work!

Only 4 percent of outer-borough residents — around 128,000 people — drive into Manhattan to work, according to a Community Service Society study. Meanwhile, 57 percent use public transit. Only 2 percent of poor outer-borough residents commute to Manhattan by car. That’s 5,000 people in total. Meanwhile, 61 percent of poor outer-borough residents rely on public transit and the rest either drive elsewhere, walk, or bike to their jobs.

What about EMT or medical workers who drive to work?

Some shift workers do have to go into the city at irregular hours — times when public transportation might not be reliable or feel safe. Sarah Kaufman, director of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation, noted that congestion pricing “needs to go hand in hand with improving transit for off-hours commutes.” (For what it’s worth, the non-peak-hour toll for personal vehicles is $3.75.)

One woman commented at a recent hearing: “I don’t think I should be penalized because I can afford myself a car and live in Manhattan.” It seems like a lot of drivers in the zone feel that way, at least at public hearings.

Arguably, this is exactly the kind of person most capable of paying the fees if they’re very committed to driving around the city. But Kaufman suggests a shift in perspective for people who see it as a penalty. Instead, she says drivers should see it as an investment they make to cover “the cost of the wear and tear and externalities of operating a vehicle within the zone.” (Those externalities include the fact that by owning a car in the city, you are creating increased traffic risk for others and also generating air pollution in one of the most transit-dense neighborhoods in the country.)

Will there be a bunch of added pollution from traffic diverting to the South Bronx?

This is a concern. The MTA plans to spend at least $130 million from the tolls to mitigate impacts to diverted neighborhoods. But as the plan rolls out, advocates say that transit and environmental overhauls to the borough is something that they will need to keep monitoring and pushing for. Fewer cars and trucks in the city is the overall goal.

How will this all be enforced?

The MTA is installing cameras that will tag E-ZPasses and photograph license plates at 110 locations around Manhattan. For the FDR Drive and West Side Highway, the MTA says it will install readers at select points that will record the time that vehicles pass through. “The system will charge a toll only if vehicles that originated outside the congestion zone stop being detected by toll equipment along these two highways.”

Okay, but what about all the people who just cover their license plates?

Yeah, it’s bad. Plate scammers are on the rise, and somebody should probably have figured this out by now.

Will the blocks above the zone just become parking garages with jacked-up prices? Will uptown just become a horror show?

It’s possible! The adjustment period is probably going to be annoying. But Kaufman points out that in London and Stockholm, things eventually normalized when people found themselves “spending more time or money looking for parking than either just paying the fee or taking transit.” Drivers changed their behavior in response to the policy, which is the point of the policy.

What else happened in London when they did this?

London flooded the streets with buses when congestion pricing went into effect and immediately saw traffic drop and air quality improve. The introduction of Ubers set things back, and the city had to be flexible in its response by upping fees. But, as Justin Davidson has written here before, London has a much more centralized transit system compared to New York, where one decision might have to go through the city’s DOT, the state-run MTA, New Jersey’s PATH and NJ Transit, and Amtrak. As he writes, to make congestion pricing more effective, this system needs to coordinate its strategies (or face an overhaul). Good luck to us!

I’m still so mad. This better work. How much less traffic will there be once the policy goes into effect?

It’s estimated that congestion in the zone would be cut by 17 percent, or some 153,000 fewer cars.

How much money is this supposed to raise?

$15 billion.

Where will that go?

To MTA capital improvements: floodproofing, modernizing the signal system, and generally bringing our very old subways into a condition of good repair. There will also be a lot more desperately needed elevators and accessibility updates, which, Kaufman points out, counterbalances many of the arguments about needing a personal car because public transportation is inaccessible.

That seems good.

Right?

But it will take time, which is annoying.

It will, which is totally annoying.

What’s going to happen to our transit system in the meantime? Will it be havoc?

It depends. The MTA is finally speeding up accessibility upgrades. But there’s a lot more that could be done to smooth things over as we transition — like adding bike infrastructure, improving bus transit (as some lawmakers are proposing), and speeding up more routes like was done with the successful 14th Street busway, a lot of which falls under the city. But as Streetsblog points out, some of the doomsday scenario probably won’t actually come to pass —  there is room in the transit system right now, which is still down in ridership numbers since the pandemic.

What’s next for the plan — will anything change?

The public hearings have ended, but there will still be time for possible tweaks before the final vote sometime before implementation. There’s also the slew of lawsuits filed against the plan that might end up delaying things. But as of now, the MTA is forging ahead.

Will I ever feel good about congestion pricing?

In Stockholm, some critics were swayed by congestion pricing after it was implemented, maybe because they had less time to sit around fuming in traffic. Others begrudgingly accepted it as part of life. But some people might never come around, and that’s also part of life in its own beautiful way.

Whose idea was this, anyway?

William Vickrey, a Columbia professor and economist, introduced the idea in the 1950s. The concept was slow to take off, at least domestically: Vickrey presented his road-pricing plan to Congress in 1959 and described the reaction as “discreet silence.” It’s kind of a sad story, actually: He died of an apparent cardiac arrest three days after he won the Nobel Prize. He was in his car.

Every Question We Could Think of About Congestion Pricing