Key details unclear in congestion plan

The state has adopted a congestion pricing plan to raise revenue for the MTA and increase vehicle travel times in Manhattan. Photo: Steven Strasser

State approves new fees on vehicles entering Manhattan to fund MTA; toll prices and possible exemptions to be determined by Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority next year

By Michael Garofalo

Manhattan drivers will soon face a new toll as part of a congestion pricing plan included in the state budget deal reached early the morning of March 31. But crucial pieces of the plan — including how much the toll will cost and who will be eligible for exemptions or relief — have yet to be determined.

Under the plan approved by Albany lawmakers, vehicles entering a congestion zone encompassing all of Manhattan south of 61st Street (with the exception of the West Side Highway and FDR Drive) will be subject to a new toll. The fee will be collected via an electronic system capable of enforcing variable toll rates depending on the day and time. Vehicles entering the congestion zone multiple times in a single day will only be charged once.

Supporters of congestion pricing have long touted the policy as a means of funding repairs to the subway system and easing traffic on Manhattan’s most crowded streets. Revenue from the new congestion tolling program, which will go into effect no earlier than December 31, 2020, will be dedicated to capital improvements for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Along with additional MTA funding generated by new taxes on internet sales and residential property sales exceeding $1 million, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the transit authority will be able to leverage up to $25 billion in bonds as a result of new revenue streams included in the budget.

Exemptions from the toll

Of the new MTA capital funds generated by the congestion fee, 80 percent is earmarked for the New York City Transit Authority, “with priority given to the subway system, new signaling, new subway cars, track and car repair, accessibility, buses and bus system improvements and further investments in expanding transit availability to areas in the outer boroughs that have limited mass transit options.” The Long Island Railroad and Metro-North commuter rail systems will each be allocated 10 percent of the remaining funds.

Emergency vehicles and some vehicles transporting individuals with disabilities are specifically exempted from the toll, and drivers who live within the congestion zone and have an annual income under $60,000 will be eligible to receive a credit reimbursing toll payments.

Responsibility for setting the toll price and granting any further exemptions is assigned to the MTA’s Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, which will also administer and maintain the tolling system. (A panel convened by the governor recommended last year a peak-hour congestion fee of $11.52 for passenger vehicles.)

New traffic mobility review board

The TBTA will receive nonbinding recommendations on toll amounts and possible credits, discounts and exemptions from a new six-member traffic mobility review board. Responsibility for appointing the traffic mobility review board’s members is assigned to the MTA board (which is controlled by the governor). The mayor can recommend one member for appointment; additionally, one member must reside in the Metro-North region and one member must reside in the Long Island Railroad region.

The law requires this advisory board to submit pricing recommendations between Nov. 15, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2020. The TBTA’s board will hold ultimate voting power on congestion toll prices and any possible relief.

Also unclear is which crossings will be eligible for toll offsets. An earlier congestion pricing proposal put forth by the governor would have eliminated “double-tolling” on drivers entering the congestion zone after using the East River tunnels, the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels or the Henry Hudson Bridge at the northern tip of Manhattan.

The new plan does not specify any crossings where tolls would be offset from the price of the full congestion charge; it instead leaves the matter to be settled by the TBTA. Rockland and Orange County legislators had threatened to withdraw support from the plan if it did not include toll offsets for drivers using the George Washington and Tappan Zee Bridges.