NYC Mayor Urges Congestion-Pricing Action to Boost Mass Transit

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is pushing for state action on congestion pricing in an effort to get commuters of the most traffic-choked U.S. city back onto trains and buses.

The lame-duck mayor has ramped up criticism in recent days of the state Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s failure to appoint members to the Traffic Mobility Review Board, a panel created in 2019 to work out details of congestion pricing. The program, which would raise billions of dollars for mass-transit improvements from tolls on motorists entering Manhattan’s business core below 60th Street, could be up and running within a year if the state filled the board vacancies and started work, de Blasio said.

“The state is not acting and the MTA is not acting,” de Blasio said during an interview on WNYC radio Friday.

The mayor, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the MTA board all support congestion pricing. The MTA blames former President Donald Trump’s administration for holding up rulings that would have moved the project forward. President Joe Biden’s administration, which has made infrastructure investment and improvement a priority, green-lighted the project March 30 by allowing the MTA to prepare a required environmental assessment. Transit advocates and regional planners say the process since has become bogged down.

The push for action comes as train and bus ridership is slow to recover after the Covid-19 led to a shutdown of businesses and forced people to work from home. The city has reopened in recent months and is trying to lure back workers and tourists. About 2.5 million people used the subways on July 14, 54% of an equivalent pre-pandemic day.

“We’ve got to get people out of the cars,” de Blasio said this week at a press briefing. “The solution, get people back to mass transit, to make mass transit better, that means congestion pricing.”

Transit Funding

The MTA estimates congestion pricing will bring in $1 billion a year, backing $15 billion of debt in a $51.5 billion capital plan that will rehabilitate Penn Station, expand the new Second Avenue Subway into Harlem, upgrade train signals to improve service and replace 157 elevators and escalators throughout its system. The agency had originally planned to begin charging drivers going into midtown Manhattan in January 2021. At a meeting last month, Pat Foye, the MTA’s chief executive officer, declined to give a start date.

“We’re working hard to implement it as soon as possible,” Ken Lovett, Foye’s senior adviser, said Thursday. “But it’s important to remember the project was delayed 20 months by the previous federal administration.”

De Blasio this week announced his pick for the Traffic Mobility Review Board, city Finance Commissioner Sherif Soliman. The MTA, controlled by Governor Andrew Cuomo, has yet to appoint its four members, and a sixth representing suburban rail commuters also hasn’t been named.

“I want to see congestion pricing start as quickly as possible,” de Blasio said on July 13.

The mayor has long feuded with Cuomo over the MTA. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, has pledged to have a better working relationship with Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams, who is favored to win the November election and also supports congestion pricing.

At the U.S. Department of Transportation, spokeswoman Nancy Singer also gave no time-frame for the program’s start, saying, “The Federal Highway Administration is in touch with New York stakeholders -- MTA, New York State Department of Transportation and New York City Department of Transportation as they work toward submittal of a complete draft Environmental Assessment.”

“It’s up to the governor and Biden to get this done, and they have not shown enough of a sense of urgency as the city faces a dual crisis of poor mass transit and overwhelming traffic congestion,” said Dan Pearlstein, policy and communications director for the Riders Alliance, a mass transit advocacy group.

Congestion pricing has been used in other cities, including London, Stockholm and Singapore, as a way to speed travel, raise money and improve mass transit.

New York City overcame Boston and Los Angeles as the most congested urban area in the U.S. last year, according to Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s annual Urban Mobility Report last month analyzing traffic conditions in 494 urban areas. Regional roads and gateways into the city are already close to their maximum load level of about 750,000 vehicles entering Manhattan on weekdays, according to Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, the nation’s oldest independent metropolitan research, planning and advocacy group.

A 2019 report on congestion pricing by the RPA estimated that New York City could see a 10% increase in traffic speeds, 136,000 fewer driver hours and at least 58,000 fewer car trips on weekdays, along with a reduction in traffic injuries, car emissions and other pollutants.

A delay of congestion pricing could worsen the city’s traffic problems to the point where it harms the economic recovery effort, Wright said.

“Traffic is already terrible and is going to get a lot worse after Labor Day,” Wright said. “They should be announcing a timetable and a schedule moving forward.”

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