Could the PA budget usher in congestion pricing?


When the Port Authority dropped its new budget on Friday afternoon, the prices were shocking. The proposal — designed to fund a ten-year, $33-billion capital plan — includes steep fare hikes for PATH riders and a significant increase in bridge tolls as well. While the New Jersey and New York state governors have slammed the Port Authority for the proposal, indications are that the two have known about the budget for months. The politics of transportation fare and toll increases are always messy.

While Gov. Christie may be feigning the outrage, in New York, Andrew Cuomo may very well be using the Port Authority’s budget to scheme. According to an article in City Hall News today, Cuomo may use the PA increases to push for the return of congestion pricing. This is, in fact, a thread that Cap’n Transit picked up on yesterday. Let’s start with the latter.

The Cap’n notices first that the planned increases and the political responses represent some fantasyland where everyone recognizes the need for upgrades to the infrastructure but no one wants to pay for it. These projects — such as replacing PATH rolling stock and rebuilding the Lincoln Tunnel helix — aren’t free. The Cap’n also says the PA budget plan exposes the sheer hypocrisy and absurdity of the political fight over congestion pricing. He writes:

One of the reasons the Port Authority is raising fares and tolls is that Governor Cuomo expects it to contribute $380 million a year to the MTA capital plan. This makes sense in a way, because people from New Jersey commute to Manhattan by train, bus and car, and benefit from having people ride the NYC Transit subways and buses. Some people have noted that the $380 million probably wouldn’t be necessary if we were bringing in $500 million a year through congestion pricing on the East River bridges and tunnels. In essence, New Jersey drivers will be paying what the drivers from Westchester, Long Island, Connecticut and the outer boroughs refused to pay.

But even Streetsblog though didn’t pick up on one of the grand ironies involved in having New Jersey drivers subsidizing sprawl in Bayside and Mamaroneck. Back in March 2008, in one of the craziest episodes of the whole crazy congestion pricing debate, twenty New York City Council members signed a letter complaining that the proposed congestion charge would be deducted from any bridge and tunnel tolls paid the same day. This, they wrote, was “blatantly unfair.” They even demanded exactly what Cuomo is asking from the Port Authority this year: that it contribute to the MTA capital plan. Of course it was a total lie: the proposed congestion charge would have remedied numerous unfair situations, not created one.

And now, over three years later, it looks like this will happen without congestion pricing. Now, if there’s a remedy for a situation that is blatantly unfair, and you apply that remedy in a situation that isn’t blatantly unfair, that would be blatantly unfair, right? And yet – I have not heard a peep from David Yassky, Jimmy Vacca, John Liu or anyone else who signed that letter. They only care about fairness when they think their constituents are the ones being treated unfairly.

Since the Port Authority has a monopoly on the Hudson River crossings, it can essentially create a congestion pricing corridor and capture revenues it needs for infrastructure improvement projects. Furthermore, once these toll hikes go into place, the absurdity of free East River crossings will be even more evident.

That situation, according to City Hall News, may be nearing a head. They call the PA budget a potential “catalyst to put tolls on the free East River bridges and impose congestion pricing.” They write:

People close to the discussions believe Gov. Andrew Cuomo will accede to a $2 toll hike despite his public protests. And once Cuomo establishes that a toll increase does not fall under his “no new taxes” pledge, these people believe that would lay the groundwork for a coordinated toll plan that would raise the price to enter crowded Manhattan but reduce it elsewhere. “The bridge tolls will become the way to solve the MTA problem,” said one person involved in the long-term effort. “In this situation, it’s ludicrous to leave some of the bridges free.”

Publicly, the idea of charging drivers to enter Manhattan sputtered to a halt after proposals from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch died in Albany. In the upper levels of the New York City region’s transportation agencies, however, leaders have for months quietly discussed how to impose a coordinated system of tolls that would raise money for transportation needs while also deterring drivers from entering the most crowded part of the city. “You could have a rational system that tries to ease the burden in the outer boroughs while charging people who drive in and cause the congestion,” said one of those high-ranking officials.

Outer-borough elected officials who said it was unfair to charge New Yorkers to cross into Manhattan quashed previous toll and congestion pricing plans. Now, the transportation leaders believe they could change the dynamic by cutting tolls on crossings between Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, focusing the charges on Manhattan commuters. “The outer-borough leaders that fight congestion pricing are the ones that use the Whitestone and the Throgs Neck,” the official said. “Why do people in Staten Island have to pay so much?”

This plan — which would supposedly raise $1.9 billion — would include a $13 fee to enter Manhattan south of 60th St. with tolls on the four free East River bridges. The cost to cross elsewhere would either stay the same or be lowered. Tolls could drop on the Verrazano, the Triboro, the Throgs Neck and Whitestone Bridges.

Forces are moving toward a plan involving congestion pricing and bridge tolls. The health of our region’s infrastructure and economy may, in fact, depend on it.

Categories : Congestion Fee, PANYNJ

53 Responses to “Could the PA budget usher in congestion pricing?”

  1. Alex C says:

    Lowering tolls on some bridges while adding them on others is a pretty balanced approach. If the tolls are the same at all the East River crossings, that would be ideal, so as to not cause increased traffic flow to whatever entrance into Manhattan with a lower toll. I support this.

    • Bolwerk says:

      Agreed. It may be better than CP even. CP only covers Manhattan below 60th St.

      • Al D says:

        Congestion pricing however, was a ‘market’ solution, i.e. it targeted the peak use congestion whilst permitting free access other times. You could say that it encouraged mass transit use when mass transit operates at its peak service and without construction delays that occur on the weekend.

        Also, it encourages a shift in commercial traffic, so some deliveries for example make more sense economically to occur after ‘regular’ business hours.

        Just putting in tolls 24/7 doesn’t solve this.

        Nor does lowering a toll on the VZ bridge and adding it to say the Brooklyn Bridge. That would shift some truck traffic back to the VZ, but it wouldn’t necessarily decrease traffic on the whole. Plus, demand from SIers is pretty inelastic and they have a discount to boot.

        • Bolwerk says:

          I don’t know for sure, but there’s a possibility that better allocation of traffic to the bridges would allow more traffic overall.

  2. Realist says:

    One wonders if New York will ever learn that taxes, fees, surcharges, etc. (doesn’t matter if you disguise them as tolls or call them something else) only make things worse in the long run. I guess the future really does belong to Texas.

    • Jeff says:

      It helps to have plenty of oil while the oil prices are skyrocketing too.

    • Alex C says:

      Yes, Texas, where they don’t believe in things like education. Let’s model ourselves after a state that strives to be a third world nation.

    • Bolwerk says:

      Eh. Roads do have to be paid for.

      As a model for transportation policy Texas is not without some meritorious policy. They’re at least able to build infrastructure, and they do it at lower costs than much of the USA. It varies by local government, but some actually price road use – unlike egalitarian New York, which can’t muster the political will to alter a confusing patchwork of tolls and subsidies for drivers. Take the NTTA, which charges a per-mile fee and has electronic collection.

      Of course, where Texas is shooting itself in the foot today is in land use policy. I somehow doubt that state has a very promising future, especially given how it seems to encourage stupidity in politics and K12 education.

    • Andrew says:

      Just make everything free. That will solve everything.

    • J B says:

      Taxes, tolls, fees… they’re all the same! If it’s a government-provided service it should be free. Unless I don’t benefit from it, in which case it should be eliminated.

  3. Peter says:

    Obviously congestion pricing would reduce traffic on the free East River bridges. I wonder how much savings the MTA might realize in reduced maintenance costs for those spans. Maybe this would be offset by the costs of administering the tolls?

  4. Scott E says:

    Trying to guise the Port Authority bridge & tunnel tolls as a form of congestion pricing is completely false. Aside from targeting only the New Jersey crossings, many of those that cross, I’ll bet, aren’t even headed to Manhattan. The George Washington Bridge to New England, points in New York north of the Bronx, or to Long Island probably accounts for a large part of it. Staten Island crossings to Brooklyn, Queens, or LI is as well. (Some may just go to SI, but I believe that’s a relatively small portion).

    Congestion Pricing is intended to reduce the number of vehicles heading into the CBD. Bridge toll hikes are not intended to reduce the number of vehicles crossing at all. (Although, the end effect will involve vehicles, mostly trucks, detouring via I-80 west to NJ-17 north to the Rockland County and over the Tappan Zee Bridge, until that bridge eventually plunges into the Hudson). Route 17 is already a dangerous road because of the commercial density, lack of traffic lights to create openings in traffic, and the trucks. This will make it worse.

    But PA Crossing tolls and Congestion Pricing are two entirely different entities, and I don’t see how they could be intertwined.

    • Bolwerk says:

      Come on, trucks aren’t going to be scared away by higher tolls. Their best deal will always be to take the fastest route to their destination. Labor and fuel overwhelm tolls as a cost consideration for them.

      • Justin says:

        I agree with you there. They may pass costs on to their end customers, but trucks will not be scared away by tolls.

        For those people who really have to drive, for whatever reason, they won’t be scared away by tolls either. Its a great revenue source…………..

        • Andrew says:

          Perhaps that’s because – despite all the carhead whining – driving is underpriced right now, and will continue to be underpriced under any of the proposed toll systems.

          (If driving weren’t underpriced, there wouldn’t be traffic jams and it would be easy to find parking.)

        • Bolwerk says:

          The argument about passing the costs on just isn’t that believable either. A high enough toll could even save the trucking companies money by allowing labor to be utilized more effectively.

          Hell, it probably even would save many POV drivers money. I doubt it takes a lot of time sitting in traffic to burn an extra $4 of fuel.

  5. Chet says:

    If the toll on the Verrazano dropped, even a dollar (from $5.76 to let’s say $4.75) for Staten Island residents with EZ Pass, there would be a collective faint from half a million island residents, including me.

    And just a note, any Staten Island resident that doesn’t has an EZ Pass is just stupid enough to deserve to pay the $13.00 full cash toll.

    One more item- tolling the Brooklyn Bridge would also balance traffic better with the Battery Tunnel. The back up for the bridge is almost always horrendous, while you can sail through the tunnel.

    • Andrew says:

      The resident toll on the Verrazano is highly discriminatory. (Why should someone who lives in Staten Island and drives to work in Brooklyn pay less than someone who lives in Brooklyn and drives to work in Staten Island? They cross the same bridge and the Brooklyn resident is probably traveling against the peak direction.) Of all tolls, why should that one drop? For a span that length, it’s a tremendous bargain already.

      • al says:

        Put in high speed electronic and photo tolling and make it 2 way toll. That should also dampen some of the truck traffic across the Manhattan Bridge. NYC DOT should take a look at a truck ferry/freight barge system in Upper NY Bay/East River between SI/Bklyn and Manhattan to take the wear off the bridges.

      • Chet says:

        There should be a program for Brooklyn EZPass users to have a discount as well on the VZ. As far was Staten Islanders getting a lower toll, the reason is simple. Unless you can use the ferry or swim, there is no way off the island.

        If I need to bring something to another borough, that cannot be carried by hand- I need to drive and that means tolls. For the other boroughs, they may need to drive as well, but moving between the other four boroughs has more free choices than tolled ones.

        When the Staten Island extension to the N Express train opens, (running from 59th St to Staten Island down Victory Blvd.) then we can talk about changing the VZ discount for island residents. (That’s snark for those who don’t realize that we don’t have the $20 billion for such a project.)

        • Alon Levy says:

          First, there’s no free choice to move from Queens to the Bronx.

          Second, so what if there’s no free choice? Building the bridges and maintaining them are not free. I had to shell out a lot of money to move from New York to Providence – rental car, road tolls, train fare. Do I deserve free train tickets because I’m moving?

          • ajedrez says:

            Technically there isn’t a direct route from Queens to The Bronx, but you can drive over the Queensboro Bridge, and then take the FDR Drive up to one of the bridges that connects Manhattan and The Bronx.

            Of course, you’d probably use up more gas than you save in tolls.

            And Staten Islanders don’t cross the bridge for free. They get a discount, but they still pay.

  6. BrooklynBus says:

    The PAs proposal to drastically raise tolls is a perfect reason why we must never allow congestion pricing or tolls on the free bridges (without lowering the toll on the pay bridges). Once in place, the City will seek to double them every few years and they will shift part of the money to the general fund so that it becomes just another tax. The politicians just cannot be trusted no matter what promises are made that the rates won’t increase.

    • Bolwerk says:

      Politicians should be voted out when they do stuff like that. It’s not excuse to not do something more sensible than what we’re currently doing.

      Anyway, CP, as proposed back in 2007, already had no effect on toll rates. The congestion fee paid was offset by bridge tolls paid, so everyone would pay an equal amount to enter the CBD. Of course, I don’t see why there should be non-electronic tolling period.

    • Christopher says:

      There are many ways to assure that the money stays where it’s supposed to go. It’s not full proof but there good be a trust or an infrastructure bank. Early states that adopted lottery to fund schools screwed this up and pulled money out of general fund for schools and so the lotteries didn’t provide additional funding. Later states set up the types of trusts that more directly funded specific programs. That’s kept some of the pressure down to raid the rest of the education funds. Not entirely and there are equal problems with constricting future governments from balance budgets as they sit fit. (Look at California which again and again and again has tied the hands of future governments by passing a thousand different voter initiatives to guarantee funding percentages for all types of things from schools to prisons with no ability to move funding around. It’s killing the state. (In addition to lack of new revenue.)

      • Bolwerk says:

        I don’t even get this constant complaining about the money being used for other things. There is no gnashing of teeth about the money that goes from general revenues to paying the costs of driving. It’s a much bigger problem than spending toll/CP money on transit or non-transportation matters.

        Not that I agree with shifting CP to general funds either, but that’s just a values call.

        • BrooklynBus says:

          If the general fund money goes to highways, it does not only benefit drivers. It benefits truckers and buses also. Even if you don’t drive you stil indirectly benefit from the highways everytime you go to the supermarket.

          • Bolwerk says:

            Money going one way or another is not in and of itself an advantage or disadvantage for me or anyone else. As things stand now, trucks probably aren’t paying for the wear and tear they cause on highways (arguably good for prices), but they are suffering from congestion on under-priced roadways (certainly bad for “consumers”) – this is clearly not something solved by general fund subsides that truckers and POV users alike get.*

            How we subsidize driving is a current problem that gets limited attention. How CP money could be used six elections from when CP is enacted is a hypothetical problem.

            * And property-tax paying railroads do not, but I digress….

          • Alon Levy says:

            Great. And if general fund money goes to my bank account, it does not only benefit me. It benefits everyone I buy goods and services from. Do I deserve a subsidy too, or do I need to buy a car for that?

  7. Donald says:

    Who here honestly believes they will drop the tolls if there is congestion pricing? Anyone?

    • Bolwerk says:

      No one ever said they would. Non-MTA crossings would still have been “free” for those who didn’t enter the CBD (under the 2007 plan Shelly killed).

  8. Hank says:

    Go Congestion Pricing! Just make it apply to all of Manhattan below 86th Street please.

  9. Andrew D. Smith says:

    The health of our region’s infrastructure depends on getting construction and maintenance costs under control — and nothing else. Money, long term, is besides the point. If you poured an extra $5 billion a year into the MTA and transit departments, it would create about three years of actual work, then the parasites would figure out a way to siphon off all the extra money and we’d once again have nothing for needed maintenance and expansion. Add another $5 billion a year and the same cycle starts again.

    Inflation adjusted, we spend way more on this stuff now than we did when we built all this stuff in the first place.

    • Andrew D. Smith says:

      All that said, I’m in favor of congestion pricing, but not until we have the cost problem under control.

      Add more money now and you are giving a larger war chest to the people who will do everything possible to continue to keep robbing you. Because that’s where all the money will go.

      If we have a system that produces a world-class combo of product for price, then congestion charging will be great.

      • R. Graham says:

        But this completely ignores all the progress of Jay Walder. The improvements in creating some efficiency can’t be denied. Progress is not a day and night type of solution. It takes time and effort. We need to replace Jay Walder with Jay Walder in order to continue what has already been started.

        • Andrew D. Smith says:

          Walder made some improvements in operational efficiency but none in new construction or even maintenance. He might have made some real strides in the latter part of that if he’d hung around for contract negotiations, but he didn’t. New construction needs to be handled by changing our entire system and that requires the state legislature to copy best practices from elsewhere. Spain pays about 90 percent less than us for new construction, so let’s say we need to reduce costs by 80 percent (which would still make NYC twice as expensive). Once we’re spending money well we can talk about getting more money.

          • R. Graham says:

            Now this is an argument for the construction industry as a whole. The MTA hires contractors for their new construction projects and therefore are subject to the same cost overruns and delays as the development industry when they hire contractors.

            That is not a battle for the MTA to fight alone. There needs to be reform but since it’s a free market industry it’s unlikely that you’ll see much movement in that department.

    • Justin says:

      There are a lot of reasons why we spend more on this type of construction than we did in the past. In the 21st century, new construction must undergo a number of reviews as it cannot damage buildings, or other things that may be near it (or else the MTA is legally liable). The construction has much higher safety standards than it once did, and that costs money as well.

      There is no way to cheaply run the MTA.

  10. Frank B. says:

    Thank you for putting ‘Triboro’ Instead of the “Triborough-Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge.” 😀

  11. Julian says:

    Now this may be a silly question, but if congestion pricing is enacted, would cabs, car services and the like be exempt from it? Would there be instead a smaller tax on those drivers?
    And a $13 toll is absurd for lower Manhattan…couldn’t tolls be enacted on the East River bridges without such a high toll to enter the CBD?

    • John says:

      The congestion pricing plans put forth in 2008 only charged drivers once per day for entering the CBD regardless of how many times they entered or exited it.

  12. “Crazy Eyes” – Keep NYC Free comments on efforts to use PANYNJ’s toll scheme to promote a Congestion Tax. See


  1. […] the Port Authority raised its river crossing tolls and PATH fares a few weeks ago, I viewed it as a trial run for a congestion pricing scheme. With such a substantial toll increase, the city would finally see first-hand what impact a […]

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