Home Congestion Fee Can a traffic pricing plan make a return?

Can a traffic pricing plan make a return?

by Benjamin Kabak


Once of Mayor Bloomberg’s defining moments in the middle of his second term was to be a traffic pricing plan. Designed to raise revenues for the MTA whiling reducing congestion across the city’s East River Bridges, Bloomberg proposed a daily fee for automobiles entering Manhattan south of 59th St. with revenues set to bolster rail and bus service. The congestion pricing plan was controversial but had garnered the support of a majority of New Yorkers so long as the money went to transit. What happened next was Albany at its finest.

Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan passed the City Council, and the measure went to Albany for a home rule request. Usually, Albany is generous in granting these measures, but this time, Sheldon Silver had other plans. The powerful Assembly speaker and Lower Manhattan rep let the bill die in committee. It never even came up for a vote, and at that point, Bloomberg’s 2030 plan lost a major source of revenue. Albany, coincidentally, lost a major ally too as New York’s mayor, never one to embrace the upstate capital, seemed largely at odds with New York’s state leadership after the vote.

For years, a congestion pricing plan has hovered around the edges of New York City politics. The idea itself hasn’t completely died, but support for a pricing scheme hasn’t rematerialized. Over the years, Sam Schwartz has continued to refine the idea into a fair tolling scheme, and he and I spoke on it at my Problem Solvers event last October. Now, with a new mayor — albeit one who hasn’t embraced a congestion pricing or East River bridge toll plan — and the MTA’s five-year needs coming into view, time may be right for another attempt.

That, at least, is what Matt Flegenheimer argues in The Times today. Here’s his story:

First, the name had to go. There could be no more talk, transit advocates reasoned, of “congestion pricing,” a phrase Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg often used before his sweeping plan to overhaul New York City’s bridge tolling system was vanquished in 2008, and treated as political arsenic ever since. Then, with a clean slate, supporters could move on to the hard part: sculpting a proposal that might succeed where the mayor failed.

And so, more than five years after Mr. Bloomberg’s plan died in Albany, a cadre of the city’s transit minds has primed a successor, fine-tuning a pricing model that might be more palatable to residents outside Manhattan, meeting quietly with former opponents and preparing to take its case early next year to a public that has grown accustomed to free, if traffic-choked, rides over the East River.

Political obstacles abound, including securing the support of the State Legislature. But in what the plan’s supporters have billed as the most significant change of heart so far, Councilman Mark Weprin, an outspoken critic of the old proposal, said in an interview last week that he was receptive to this reimagined version. “I’d like to have a chance to talk to them again,” he said of his constituents, “and say this makes a lot more sense.” (Mr. Weprin, a Queens Democrat, is running for City Council speaker.)

The latest version of Schwartz’s plan is available in a presentation on his website (pdf), and it essentially involves a series of trade-offs. The Verrazano Bridge toll would be lowered while the free East River crossings would come with a charge. Direct routes through and into Manhattan would all carry the same charge so that traffic would find the most efficient route and not the cheapest while transit would enjoy added revenue.

It’s a much more rigorous plan than that put forth by Mayor Bloomberg, but absent some serious political pressure it won’t happen. The first obstacle is the MTA. The agency won’t advocate for this plan on its own, and any proposal that involves reducing Verrazano tolls means that the MTA’s own revenue streams would be reduced. Unless the city bridges are all turned over to the MTA, lowering MTA tolls is risky, and I’ve received indications that MTA doesn’t particularly want control over all the bridges and all the attendant headaches that came along with it.

Next up is the idea that change emerges out of a crisis. Right now, reports indicated that the MTA’s finances are stronger than expected and that the agency is enjoying unexpected surpluses. We know how fragile the budget is, and we know that the MTA needs to fund a $28 billion five-year capital plan. But the average voter may not recognize as much. Levying more fees on people who think New York is already too pricey won’t go over well in bad economic times; it certainly won’t be smiled upon in good times.

Finally, there are the Usual Suspects. Take, for instances, Richard Brodsky. The one-time Westchester rep is still leading the charge against congestion pricing, and he still doesn’t understand who drives into Manhattan on a daily basis. “It will modify the behavior of the guy driving the ’97 Chevy,” he said to The Times, “but will do nothing to modify the behavior of the guy driving the 2013 Mercedes.” Brodsky has yet to realize, five years later, that the guy with that ’97 can’t afford to drive into Manhattan anyway.

I want Schwartz’s plan to succeed. I want to see an equitable pricing scheme that reduces traffic into Manhattan and along the arteries that serve the island at the center of the city. I want Lee Sander’s comments to The Times — “If people oppose this, there is an obligation for them to come up with their alternative for how we fund the region’s subways, commuter rail and bus system” — to come true. But I’m not sure the political will is there quite yet. Someone high up will have to be a champion.

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Bolwerk November 26, 2013 - 1:40 am

When Cuomo’s stratospheric approval ratings finally start to drop, probably sometime after 2014, maybe the odds will improve a little.

Going with Brodsky’s grotesque Joe Sixpack metaphor (as if Brodsky* gives a fuck about people who work for a living), I think it’s important to remember the people who make incidental car trips to Manhattan might stand to benefit most from this. The only people who benefit more are people who spend much of their day in traffic congestion.

* I normally don’t correct minutiae here, but in this case it might matter politically: wasn’t Brodsky a Westchester Assemblyman?

lawhawk November 26, 2013 - 9:30 am

Yes, he was a Westchester Assemblyman for many years (from the 1983 through 2010). He retired from that position in 2010.

I seem to recall that his previous objections to congestion pricing had to do with the fact that it wouldn’t sufficiently benefit Westchester enough – that more of the money would be staying within NYC confines.

Like so many other politicians locally and nationwide, he has a warped worldview when it comes to transit, and doesn’t realize that mass transit can move more people more efficiently and effectively than any other transport mode. But so many people are wedded to cars that they ignore the subsidies that make auto travel possible.

Alex C November 26, 2013 - 8:15 am

It’s never happening. The city politicians (including our new mayor) all drive and don’t want more tolls (and don’t care about transit). The state legislature again just doesn’t care, and our benevolent prince governor hates transit and taxes. He would strike down any new tolls the second the bill comes across his desk.

Duke November 26, 2013 - 9:16 am

This plan is a lot more palatable than the previous one since it accompanies adding tolls to the free bridges to Manhattan with reducing the tolls on bridges that don’t go to Manhattan. This just makes sense: it encourages traffic that does not have Manhattan as a destination to drive around it. The current cockamamie scheme does the opposite: it encourages those people to drive through Manhattan just to shunpike.

The powerpoint linked to in the article does have some other interesting things in it – new ped/bike bridges to Manhattan, transit along LIE, Bruckner, and Belt… they demonstrate the latter with a horribly photoshopped picture of the Van Wyck and Airtrain. It’s almost worth reading the presentation just for that!

Clarke November 26, 2013 - 11:57 am

PDF doesn’t seem to be working on my end via the link…has it been pulled down?

Benjamin Kabak November 26, 2013 - 12:00 pm

Looks like it has been. Odd.

lawhawk November 26, 2013 - 12:08 pm

Think it’s just been moved around or a localized issue; the PDF is still available on Sam’s site:


Benjamin Kabak November 26, 2013 - 12:27 pm

Neither. There’s an update to the file URL, and it appears to be a revised version of the presentation dated today instead of early November.

Chet November 26, 2013 - 12:05 pm Reply
Clarke November 26, 2013 - 12:11 pm Reply
LLQBTT November 26, 2013 - 9:38 pm

Maybe if they added variable tolling depending on time of day it would more palatable. For example, peak weekday Manhattan bound and $6, rest of work day, $5. Evenings $3, weekends $3. Overnight hours $2.50 (i.e. commensurate with subway fare). This is at least somewhat reflective of the actual service (inclusive of weekend line shutdowns) that our supposed transit rich communities get (see my comment below on Manhattan). Harlem River Bridges $3 all day, $2.50 overnight.

Myron November 26, 2013 - 9:43 am

Here’s an idea I like:

Tolls increase with frequency of use –

First two trips per month – free
Trips per month – % of toll
1 – 2 = Free
3 – 10 = 75% of toll
11 – 30 = 100% of toll
31 – 50 = 120% of toll

Also could be adjusted for time of day, separate counters for weekends etc.

Dan November 26, 2013 - 12:07 pm

I could see something happening around Summer 2015 (near the end of the annual legislative session), after Cuomo and each party’s Legislature majority have been reelected AND Hillary Clinton has declared herself “in” the presidential race (which means Cuomo realistically will not be). The political risk to everyone would be a bit lower then.

LLQBTT November 26, 2013 - 9:41 pm

Interesting comment. If our beloved Prince runs for King (sorry, President), then would his tolling sign off effectively become GOP fodder for his sign off on nanny congestion pricing taxes. “Errrr, now don’t be tellin’ us ‘Mericans where and when we can be a drivin’ our cars! It’s about freedom, baby!”

Larry Littlefield November 26, 2013 - 12:13 pm

Note that the plan would be used to fund all kinds of goodies, and not the MTA capital plan. No one wants to pay for the MTA capital plan.

Spendmore Wastemore November 26, 2013 - 12:52 pm

How about not paying people $100K to drive a train
and $50K for station cleaners to sit near a mop bucket.

60% of the MTA’s expenses are labor. It’s actually a vast patronage operation, with a bit of public works dribbled out for show. Walder tried to change that and his efforts were not welcome here.

It would be interesting to compare NYCT’s quality of service and cost of that of whatever operation hired Walder.

LLQBTT November 26, 2013 - 9:44 pm

You mean MTR in Hong Kong that makes money? Here’s a financial guy’s view. Interesting and the business model is quite different:


Spendmore Wastemore November 26, 2013 - 10:31 pm

I’ll check that out.

Alon Levy November 26, 2013 - 11:02 pm

First, people are paid like $70,000 to drive a train, not $100,000.

Second, driving a train is a skilled job, requiring safety-consciousness and a lot of precision.

pat November 28, 2013 - 5:05 pm

MTA employees are grossly overpaid and overemployed

Billy G November 26, 2013 - 1:37 pm

Another bunch of collectivist clap-trap. I’m glad it got stopped at the state level. Who gets hurt by this crap? The small businessman who has to haul tools from jobsite to jobsite and does his own work. It hurts everyone who seeks to live outside of the gentle, tender embrace of the MTA and its collectivist control. What, the gas taxes aren’t enough? It isn’t enough that the bridges’ tolls are already raided to pay for trains?

Let there be no more attempts to charge a separate fee for the privilege of traversing this island.

Let the train stand on its own merits. That, and the MTA sales tax and payroll tax and tax on deed transfers, and probably a bunch of taxes that I’ve forgotten about.

Tower18 November 26, 2013 - 2:45 pm

It’s already “collectivist”, you’re just ignoring it. We’ve already collectivized the negative effects, but the positives are privatized, so to speak. When you drive toll-free, only YOU feel the benefits. When thousands drive toll-free, we ALL feel the negatives. This is a fact, period, and it explains a lot of the resistance to any sort of plan.

That’s why nothing works in this country anymore, we can’t make any grand plans, because there’s always some mouthbreather in the back of the room that screams COMMUNISM every time anyone proposes a coordinated effort. We can only do things piecemeal, which is why mostly nothing gets done, and what does get done often directly conflicts with something else.

Alex C November 26, 2013 - 7:37 pm

I think you’re slightly confused. This would “hurt” people who live in areas with transit coverage who decide to drive into traffic-filled Manhattan. Not sure what any of this has to do with collectivism or whatever.

AG November 26, 2013 - 8:50 pm

what are you talking about??? Why should that same small businessman be forced to pay those high tolls on the Whitestone – Throggs Neck and Verazzano bridges – while someone gets to driver over the 4 major east river bridges for free??? Charge them and lower everyone else’s is what is fair.

Bolwerk November 26, 2013 - 10:19 pm

As always…

Free stuff from the government for me = services

Free stuff from the government I disagree with = collectivism!1! hurr!!1! hurr!1! socialism!!11!

Rob November 26, 2013 - 1:41 pm

‘the name had to go. There could be no more talk, transit advocates reasoned, of “congestion pricing,”’ — what would we do without our treasured Word Police?

jjjj November 26, 2013 - 5:24 pm

Maybe they can buy new signals. I’m stuck at some Station past Stanford because metro north can’t get their shit together. Signal failures for everybody

LLQBTT November 26, 2013 - 9:31 pm

I just don’t see how tolling the bridges is somehow fair and equitable and charges fairly those in a supposed transit rich environment. And does this accurately account for the source of the drivers, originating from transit rich starting points or not. Perhaps if the phrase, transit rich environment in the 4 boroughs exclusive of Manhattan were added, that’d perhaps be somewhat more accurate. This is because it seems that the people in the most transit rich borough AND the borough with the wealthiest folks skate on this one…

alek November 26, 2013 - 11:37 pm


Totally off the topic here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Br034Fzedn8 <— twerking on the subway tracks.

This has been making rounds slowly on youtube. Wonder which subway station is this?

Benjamin Kabak November 26, 2013 - 11:44 pm

It looks like it may be 7th Ave. on the B/D/E. Crazy people.

anon_coward November 30, 2013 - 9:14 am

i’m all for it as long there is a fully approved and funded plan to run new subway lines in queens and brooklyn where there are no subways. or build new park and rides and local LIRR stations for people to park their car to take the train

AgentOtis December 3, 2013 - 4:26 pm

Having been stuck in traffic for HOURS on the FDR, the Queensboro, the Manhattan and Bk bridges, I can see how this would benefit drivers like me by reducing congestion.

But morally, I find it wrong to charge Staten Islanders to go to Brooklyn by car – even at a reduced toll. I even find it more egregious that people who live in Far Rockaway have to drive to Nassau County to avoid paying tolls in order to get to the rest of NYC.

That said, congestion pricing seems like an “us vs them” argument, because the basic assumption in the plan assumes that people who drive have more money than those who don’t (after paying TBTA $7.50 each time I cross some water on an Interstate here and paying the $3.60 a gallon daily because of being stuck in no-moving bumper to bumper traffic on the GCP and/or the BQE, that assumption isn’t true), and that they should pay more to help fund the subway for those who don’t drive.

So my question is: If the MTA is so cash strapped, why not raise the fares of those using the MTA’s systems instead of taking money from those who don’t?

anon_coward December 3, 2013 - 4:36 pm

and why should you be able to cross the bridges for free? they cost a lot of money to maintain


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