Home Congestion Fee Preparing the subways for a congestion fee era

Preparing the subways for a congestion fee era

by Benjamin Kabak

As Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s congestion fee plan gains traction and attention around the nation, news reports, such as this one featured in The Times today, act as though PLANYC2030 is reaching a tipping point.

While in the city, public transportation advocates and officials have thrown their support behind the plan, now, Gov. Eliot Spitzer is pledging to make the congestion fee a reality. In fact, even the Bush Administration is urging the state legislature to adopt the plan. The Times reports:

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s plan to reduce traffic by charging people who drive into the busiest parts of Manhattan received significant support on Thursday as Gov. Eliot Spitzer endorsed the idea and the Bush administration indicated that New York stood to gain hundreds of millions of dollars if the plan were enacted…

Mr. Spitzer appeared alongside the United States transportation secretary, Mary E. Peters, who announced that New York City was one of nine finalists for a share of $1.1 billion in federal aid to fight urban traffic. Ms. Peters warned, however, that the city’s potential share could be endangered if the mayor’s plan did not have state approval by August.

None of this support, the articles notes, guarantees passage for the congestion fee, and State Assembly and Senate members will delve deep into their list of concerns being giving the go-ahead to this ambition traffic-curbing plan. But with the big guns aligning behind the legislation, we can start to consider the reality of a congestion fee in New York City.

According to Bloomberg, the plan could be in place within 18 months of approval. At that point, commuters will be charged hefty amounts to drive into the city’s central business district south of 86th St., and the money, Sewell Chan wrote on the Empire Zone blog, will help alleviate the MTA’s potential financial woes.

Now, all of this got me thinking: The MTA will have more money. But no one knows yet how that money will be spent. For the most part, everyone believes that windfall from the congestion fee will fund the Second Ave. subway, the 7 line extension and other capital construction projects designed to improve mass transit in the city.

But what about the increase in ridership sure to come as a result of the congestion fee? Earlier this week, The Queens Gazette noted that subway ridership numbers have increased along with the New York City economy. What is going to happen if, as the city draws in more money from the congestion fee, the economy improves and many commuters head to the subway to avoid the wallet-aches of driving?

As I see it, the MTA will face a crush of people once the fee is in place. The subways, already filled to capacity on many lines, will witness a dramatic increase in ridership, and I don’t think the MTA has the infrastructure in place to keep up. So while the city is trying to build the Second Ave. subway — a project for which I clearly am in favor — the Authority will have to find a way to modernize the system to allow for more frequent and more efficient trains.

And thus the congestion fee becomes a double-edged sword. As the city draws in more money from the fee, this money will end up invested in the subways. But at the same time, ridership and demands on the infrastructure will increase as well. While the federal government is now dangling the promise of money in front of the city and state, these funds probably won’t cover the amount the MTA needs to prepare the system for a record-shattering onslaught of straphangers.

The debates over the congestion fee this summer will focus around these issues of preparedness. Maybe this is the push the MTA needs to begin a serious overhaul of infrastructure that is 100 years old and signal technology that dates from the 1930s in most places. No matter what, it’s about time for an upgrade.

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Harlan June 8, 2007 - 8:08 am

But isn’t the number of people who commute to Manhattan by car on the order of just a few hundred thousand? If half those people, say a hundred thousand, start using public transit (more likely commuter rail than subway), it’ll barely be a blip on the million+ people who come into the city every day.

Christian June 8, 2007 - 8:10 am

Only 5% of Manhattan commuters come in by car, if even half of them switch over you won’t see much of a difference on the subways.

Marsha June 8, 2007 - 8:31 am

Harlan mentions that those affected by the congestion fee will switch to commuter rail, not subways. I disagree in part. Those using the commuter rails only get to 2 areas of Manhattan–the Penn Station area and the Grand Central Station area. Unless they work in those neighborhoods, all those commuters will still have to use the subways or buses to get to their final destinations, thus greatly increasing subway use as predicted.

eric the beehivehairdresser June 8, 2007 - 10:39 am

I’m fairly certain that the congestion pricing money will be used to pay for overpriced floor tiles that will amount to the billions of dollars that will be laid down on subway platforms that have always been easily and at a cost efficienct price had slabs of cement used for a century.

The city really needs more subway lines for the rush hours of today. I can only hope that I’m completely out of this city by 2030.

Gary June 8, 2007 - 3:59 pm

Ben, this is an excellent point and one I’ve been harping on.

The subway system needs a major overhaul and capacity enhancements; it also needs expansion (SAS, 7 extension, etc). We can’t sacrifice one for the other if this city is going to continue to thrive.

This new funding source is a good start, but what we need to see is committed funding from the city, state, and federal government on an annual basis.

Raising fares on the subway is exactly the wrong decision. It amounts to another form of regressive taxation, as well as a disincentive to what we should be seeking to accomplish: higher transit use. It’s a matter of getting our priorities, and tax structures, straight.

wayne's world June 8, 2007 - 4:32 pm

The burden of heavy midtown traffic has many costs attached to it–costs measured in dollars lost through delays, inability to make deliveries, etc. etc. It’s time that those responsible for those costs start paying for them. the time for the congestion fee has arrived. While it can be said that it permits the rich to drive into midtown and keeps out people of lesser means, that’s probably what happens for the most part currently, without a congestion plan. We need to ease the vehicular burden in midtown and it’s time to do it.

While we’re at it, let’s turn 42nd St. between Seventh and Eigth Avenues into a pedestrian mall. Cars just don’t belong on that stretch of road.

stepheneliot June 8, 2007 - 5:12 pm

The status quo will likely last past any timetable laid down by Mayor Bloomberg et al. and become another fine mess created by the buraucracy. My solution to you New Yorkers is that you leave the city for Los Angeles to drive on the uncongested streets of my city and share the pleasures of driving, particulary at rush hour, on the 405 freeway, or find hidden avenues to negotioate between West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley through Bel Air shortcuts. If that doesn’t work, we’ll always have the pleasures of Bend, Oregon where the driving is free and easy but the food disgustedly unhealthy accompanied by cigarette smoke almost as thick as fog in the restaurnts. So Papeete, anyone?

ABG June 8, 2007 - 9:09 pm

Here is the PlaNYC2030 document showing what they propose to spend the money on – be warned that it’s a 166 page, 25 megabyte PDF file:


Brooklyn riders want some ‘F’-ing express service « Second Ave. Sagas | Blogging the NYC Subways June 13, 2007 - 11:41 am

[…] believes that if, as I do, the congestion fee will increase subway ridership, crowded lines such as the F will become even more packed with commuters. The MTA should therefore […]

Fate of NYC public transportation could be decided today « Second Ave. Sagas | Blogging the NYC Subways September 4, 2007 - 1:35 am

[…] For the last week, I’ve been silent on the issue of the congestion fee, but over the last few months, I’ve been an outspoken advocate of the congestion fee plan. Any plan that reduces traffic in New York City while finding money for our cash-strapped public transportation system will get my blessing. […]


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