Home Congestion Fee Initial questions as Cuomo’s FIX NYC traffic pricing plan comes into view

Initial questions as Cuomo’s FIX NYC traffic pricing plan comes into view

by Benjamin Kabak

The FIX NYC panel released its full report, today recommended a series of measures to reduce Manhattan congestion.

Update: The Fix NYC advisory panel released its full report on Friday morning. You can read it right here as a PDF. My questions below are still relevant, and I had some initial reactions via a thread on Twitter.

The Governor issued a statement on the panel’s report but hedged on the way forward:

“I have received the report from Fix NYC and will review it carefully. I thank the panel for their hard work and effort. I will discuss the alternatives with the legislature over the next several months. There is no doubt that we must finally address the undeniable, growing problem of traffic congestion in Manhattan’s central business district and present a real, feasible plan that will pass the legislature to raise money for MTA improvements, without raising rider fares.

A uniform pricing model for FHVs that discourages continuing presence in the central business district and incentivizes trucks to deliver on off peak hours is a necessary component. Tolls must be more fair. Trips to and from New Jersey can be less expensive than trips from New York City’s outer boroughs. Tolls vary widely, and they must be rationalized so costs are fair to all.

The report accurately points out that the objective is not to raise tolls entering the borough of Manhattan, but more specifically those trips adding to the congestion in a defined central business district. But, as a born and raised Queens boy, I have outer borough blood in my veins, and it is my priority that we keep costs down for hard working New Yorkers, and encourage use of mass transit. We must also find a way to reduce the costs for outer borough bridges in any plan ultimately passed.

I still wonder if this is a real plan he intends to champion or something he will use for cover to claim he tried to fix NYC’s traffic problems but could not overcome Albany resistance. My original post follows.

* * *

With Governor Cuomo’s Fix NYC task force set to release its report on Friday afternoon, Jim Dwyer and Winnie Hu of The Times have a first glimpse at the traffic pricing plan behind which Cuomo may line up to bring relief to New York streets and money for transit. Here’s what we know so far:

Driving a car into the busiest parts of Manhattan could cost $11.52 under a major proposal prepared for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that would make New York the first city in the United States with a pay-to-drive plan…

Trucks would pay $25.34, and taxis and for-hire vehicles could see surcharges of $2 to $5 per ride. The pricing zone would cover Manhattan south of 60th Street. In a key change from past efforts, drivers would not have to pay if they entered Manhattan by all but two of the city-owned East River bridges, which are now free to cross, as long as they bypassed the congestion zone.

The proposals are part of a report by a task force, “Fix NYC,” convened by Governor Cuomo after he declared a state of emergency in the subways last June. The report says that the fees on taxis and for-hire vehicles could be put in place within a year, followed by trucks and then cars in 2020. None of those fees should be charged, the task force said, until repairs are made to the public transit system.

“Before asking commuters to abandon their cars, we must first improve mass transit capacity and reliability,” a draft of the report says.

This is a better plan than I expected and approximates Michael Bloomberg’s doomed proposal from 2008. That we have gone nowhere in the past decade is very telling, and that this plan doesn’t come with East River Bridge tolling parity is disappointing. But a Start is a start is a start, and if Cuomo accepts this plan, it can be a building block to something better and more complete down the road.

In no order, though, some questions:

  • If the 59th St. and Brooklyn Bridges aren’t rolled and can be used to enter or exit the cordon zone without paying the fee, how can we protect against massive increases in traffic across those bridges?
  • What transit upgrades can be implemented by 2020 that will be sufficient enough for the panel to be comfortable with the implementation of the traffic fee? Reliability and capacity increases take years or decades to see through, and not months.
  • Can anyone really Fix NYC without MTA construction cost reforms?
  • Is this a real plan that stands a chance of passing the New York State Assembly and Senate or is this just a CYA report to bolster Cuomo’s reelection campaign? With the Cuomo-supported plan to give Senate control to the state Republicans via the breakway IDC Senators, any traffic plan faces a tough hurdle in the state legislature. Will Cuomo push for this plan so that it passes the Senate or is just supposed to make him look like he tried, but failed, to fix city streets, traffic and the MTA?
  • Will the mayor finally experience his own come-to-Jesus moment on traffic pricing or will he continue to lie, distort reality and reverse himself in discussing a plan that will impact guys like him who live in NYC for decades but are seemingly allergic to the subway?
  • Do all of the players involved realize congestion pricing is only one part of fixing the bus network and solving transit woes and that other reforms are badly needed?

Some of these questions should be answered in Friday’s report; others may take a few weeks to unfold as we see the political forces line up behind (or against) the Fix NYC recommendations. Either way, this is a start and, while far from perfect, a good one at that.

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JJJ January 19, 2018 - 12:19 am

Prediction: Because they aren’t tolling bridges, the against argument will shift to this:

“Trucks would pay $25.34”

“New York residents already suffer under some of the highest prices in the nation. Grocers and bodegas will have no choice but to pass these costs onto customers, resulting in more expensive milk, medicine, and even pizza.”

The NYT will quickly follow with a concern-troll: “Is this the end of the $1 slice?”

and the special Thursday edition:

“We asked Trump supporters in the heartland if they would still pay to see a show on Broadway if the fee were in effect”

Adirondacker12800 January 19, 2018 - 12:32 am

Truck drivers get paid by the hour whether the truck is moving or stuck in traffic.

Eric January 23, 2018 - 8:58 am

In econ terms, people are willing to pay a certain amount to enter Manhattan. They pay for this either in tolls or in wasted time. If a toll is instituted, trucks will pay more to enter Manhattan, but less in driver salaries because driving is quicker. So the price of pizza in Midtown should stay about the same.

Bolwerk January 23, 2018 - 6:24 pm

It’s productivity that goes up. Driver wages likely stay the same, so for labor costs to fall some drivers can need to be dispensed with or overtime reduced. Trucking company managers will probably happily pocket the increase in productivity in their bonus checks.

Though there should be other savings too, including fuel.

Ralfff January 19, 2018 - 1:06 am

Agree on all of this happening in some form, but the irony is, as Kenneth Barr notes, trucks actually perform a useful service. It would be nice to avoid charging trucks insofar as they are performing a useful service but I don’t know how to practically enforce such a rule. Simply killing the fee structure where trucks are incentivized to drive eastbound over the Verazzano Bridge and westbound thru Manhattan would be a significant accidental benefit to this whole thing and a slight boost to city and regional competitiveness if it increases the incentives for trucks to get back loads.

RVA_Exile January 20, 2018 - 5:30 am

The Verrazzano-Narrows one-way toll was from the ancient practice of having a toll booth/collector to collect every toll – Staten Island residents lobbied for a toll with the backup on the bridge instead of the Island to marginally reduce noise and air pollution.

With the advent of cashless tolling, the region’s most expensive toll can and should be immediately divided into a two-way toll, given that there are no delays attributable to no longer existing toll booths.

This can be done completely independently of any congestion charging plan and immediately cut down on the NJ truck loop traffic. Should be politically painless as well?

tacony January 19, 2018 - 10:38 am

Industries that rely on a lot of trucks already charge higher prices than they do in the suburbs due to the higher cost and aggravation of transportation and parking. You can’t argue that this wouldn’t be another small fee that may increase the cost of some goods and services.

The Dollar Slice guys excel at figuring out how to keep prices down, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re the enterprising few who would figure out how to game the system: is it worth it to fill up the truck at Jetro Cash and Carry or Restaurant Depot and drive it to the very edge of the congestion zone, then park the truck and have things transported into the zone by bike couriers, or even have people take packs of flour and tomato paste and processed cheese on the subway? If you fill a big enough truck with goods, $25.34 isn’t that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. The big trucks that chain supermarkets use are large enough that the economy of scale may make a $25 fee negligible.

It would have more impact on the small time contractors and people who drive little trucks to do little jobs. This is the small group of people that are going to be the fiercest opponents of congestion pricing. I feel for these guys (and they are mostly guys), but on the other hand I think that these tend to be people who culturally aren’t attuned to using transit and would be hostile to taking the train even if they were carrying very few tools. But it’s hard to argue that the proposed reduction in congestion is going to help them enough to offset a small time general contractor having to pay $25 every time he drives into Manhattan to work on a bathroom renovation.

SEAN January 19, 2018 - 11:16 am

Then… A. roll several jobs together to avoid multi-crossings & recalibrate schedules or B. don’t bother taking Manhattan jobs as there are plenty of other places for contractors such as LI & Westchester. If a contractor goes with option B, there will always be a contractor willing to fill the void & except the costs of option A.

Hank January 19, 2018 - 2:28 pm

So why not exempt truck deliveries made between 9pm and 6am? Ancient Rome used to restrict cart deliveries to after dark. If we incentivize night deliveries, that would be good.

SEAN January 19, 2018 - 3:48 pm

Because you’re not capturing the value of the crossing or even better, you are giving up potential revenue that both the city & the transit system need.

Eric January 23, 2018 - 10:09 am

You’re giving up revenue, but gaining lower prices for consumers, which itself creates more taxes and revenue. So you get some of the revenue back, and help the economy at the same time.

Bolwerk January 24, 2018 - 1:53 pm

Super doubtful. For goods/freight, I seriously doubt any firm beyond the wholesale level is going to save anything because of or in spite of CP. Delivery companies themselves might realize real savings (fuel, labor) with CP, so it’d be kind of silly to then undermine the very process that helps them realize that savings with a giveaway. Perhaps they’ll pass those savings onto some wholesalers. Perhaps competition will make it possible for market players to try to undercut each other, driving down shipping prices a little. Perhaps not.

Either way, if there’s going to be a savings for general consumers, it’s going to be for times when they’re billed directly for transpo services (e.g., paying someone to come over to work on their house). The consumer retail market probably has too many other factors dictating prices to be influenced by what might amount to a savings of pocket change per ton-mile. That might minutely affect the price of a car or a slab of pre-fab reinforced concrete, but a slab of meat or a can of diet soda?

wiseinfrastructure January 20, 2018 - 7:33 pm

If the proposal has the same price 24/7 – it should be changed.

-late hours should be free
-the fees should be varied through the day to maximize traffic flow in the city

Deliveries should be encouraged at night when a double parked truck hurts no one.

Bolwerk January 24, 2018 - 1:10 pm

Maybe varying prices makes sense, but there’s no reason to make anything “free.” Traffic can be bad late at night too, and people driving at night are still consuming public resources (wear and tear, policing, parking, etc..).

Avi January 19, 2018 - 12:33 am

I think you’re miss reading the 59th and Brooklyn bridge part. They don’t let you enter/exit without paying a fee. The cordon is inside the FDR. So if you take the bridge and go right onto the FDR you never enter the cordon. All other free crossings put you into Manhattan inside the cordon.

Benjamin Kabak January 19, 2018 - 9:32 am

Oh, yes. I understand. But by creating toll inequities, any through-traffic will bunch on the Brooklyn and 59th St. bridges. Take, for example, a ride from the UES to Brownstone Brooklyn. In the past, drivers would follow Waze and take either the Manhattan or Brooklyn Bridges depending upon traffic. Now, they are completely incentivized to take the Brooklyn Bridge. It will cause massive traffic problems.

Kenneth Barr January 19, 2018 - 12:07 pm

What is coming out in the media is very discouraging. I actually thought that someone with half a brain was formulating this proposal instead of the usual political money grab mentality. This plan is probably DOA in the Assembly and definitely in the Senate. Once again the politicians are playing the City against the suburbs and manhattan against the outer boroughs. When are they going to learn that public transportation is a regional issue that requires intelligent and holistic regional solutions. Smart congestion pricing recognizes nuances and charges accordingly. This is anything but and deserves to go down to defeat. Once again, when the chips were down, Andrew Cuomo and company came up way to small. Since the De Blasio “Millionaires Tax” is also dead in the water we just wasted an entire year with nothing to show for it. When is the Mayor going to learn that in New York State, taxes must be collected into the General Fund and allocated to the agencies by the Legislature and the Governor. When Bill Thompson proposed the Payroll Tax surcharge to fund the MTA, he was told this but he pooh-poohed all who warned against a gimmick tax. Those who fail to learn from recent history are not only doomed to repeat it but also qualify as stupid. This is totally disgusting and unacceptable.

Avi January 19, 2018 - 3:05 pm

Thinking about this a little more, this may be a feature not a problem. If someone is driving from the UES to Brownstone Brooklyn, they never need to be in the cordon zone. If this plan encourages the driver to either take 59th St or Brooklyn Bridge they are only on the FDR and don’t add traffic to Lower Manhattan. Before they might have taken Manhattan Bridge and as a result driven through Manhattan city streets. It creates more traffic on the periphery(including the parts of Brooklyn objecting to tolls), but from the perspective of reducing traffic in Manhattan, it may still accomplish its goals.

BronxSteve January 19, 2018 - 4:04 pm

There are ways to allow users of other bridges/tunnels to avoid the fee, as long as they immediately head for the FDR Drive. Just record them as paying the fee when they exit those bridges into the cordon, but then deduct the fee if they find their way to the FDR Drive within, say 15 minutes.

Kenneth Barr January 19, 2018 - 12:44 am

If true, this falls far short of what is required for congestion pricing to make sense. Delivery trucks should not have to pay more than single occupancy vehicles or pass-through traffic. Delivery vehicles provide a service to the central business core and the fee they pay should reflect that. There should also be a differential between medallion taxis and the livery services such as Uber and Lyft. Congestion pricing is only worthwhile if it is done with more than a bit of intelligence.

Avi January 19, 2018 - 1:13 am

Delivery trucks will benefit from reduced congestion and save labor costs. That will actually save them more money than this costs. And from a congestion perspective, they take up more room and double parking causes more congestion, so charging them more seems reasonable. Especially if the charge is time based and it encourages deliveries to be shifted off hours.

Why should medallions and Ubers be charged differently? They are both driving around the cordon zone picking up passengers?

JJJ January 19, 2018 - 1:27 am

Trucks should be charged in the same manner we charge tolls: By the axle. Or actually, by the foot.

You know those illegal 60-foot semi trucks that NYPD ignores?


A Ford Transit or Mercedes Sprinter van? Same fee as cars.

Starbucks receiving milk in a semi truck that is illegally parked in an active traffic lane during rush hour while blocking a crosswalk causes a ton more congestion than a van that can fit into any loading zone.

I’m sure you’ve seen these assholes.

SEAN January 19, 2018 - 11:54 am

I always think of those silver Sysco foods tractor trailers that block not only parking spaces, but half of the adjacent traffic lane & you cant see around them as they stop to make deliveries to one or two businesses.

SEAN January 19, 2018 - 11:44 am

Delivery trucks should not have to pay more than single occupancy vehicles or pass-through traffic. Delivery vehicles provide a service to the central business core and the fee they pay should reflect that.

Trucks by there size & weight cause more damage to both the air we breathe & stress to our infrastructure. So based on those two factors they should pay to offset those impacts.

There should also be a differential between medallion taxis and the livery services such as Uber and Lyft. Congestion pricing is only worthwhile if it is done with more than a bit of intelligence

Uber & Lift are app based taxi services & should not be viewed differently than a car service or a yellow cab. They just appear cool since you can get one from your IPhone.

Guest January 19, 2018 - 3:06 am

How about bus-only lanes across the free East River Bridges for city buses?

There’s a start.

R2 January 19, 2018 - 9:59 am

Item 3 is the most important part: without significant cost reform, we’ll be right back where we started (for example, if MTA gets an additional $1.0 B in revenue per year, contractors will raise their costs by $1.2 B per year).

SEAN January 19, 2018 - 12:05 pm

There is a solution to that… a max price cap. You can charge what ever you want, but with a cap the contractor won’t get a dime over the cap & it must be stated clearly in any contract. Also there needs to be a disinsentive for contractors in taking the MTA to court if they attempt to get payment over the fixed cap.

Hank January 19, 2018 - 2:30 pm

Sadly this is the case. The absurd MTA labor costs and illogical bidding system is a crime against the people of NYC.

SEAN January 19, 2018 - 3:40 pm

If need be, don’t except any bids & wait it out.

BronxSteve January 19, 2018 - 4:08 pm

Don’t get why residents of the cordon have to pay each time they exit and enter. Notice I said exit and enter, not enter and exit. Unlike other drivers, they only use their cars to get out of the city, then back home again. They will do this anyway, whatever the fee. Maybe they should pay if they only drive within the cordon, but if they leave and come back home, they should not pay, since this activity would occur anyway. The only justification for their paying is to raise revenue.

Greg January 20, 2018 - 8:07 pm

To leave Manhattan you still have to drive in Manhattan, so this still causes congestion. Paying the congestion charge for these trips makes people reconsider the need and mode of their trip just like the inbound trips.

wiseinfrastructure January 19, 2018 - 4:12 pm

Street space in Manhattan is a limited commodity and its over use is to the detriment of everyone.

Congestion pricing is a no brainer

-it reduces the number of vehicles clogging the streets
-it increases the speed of the remaining vehicles (especially buses which will absorb many of the former drivers)
-it provides a funding mechanism to build, maintain and subsidize the mass transit system

Tweaking the system to:
-keep the pain down
-keep speeds up
-maximize the number who will benefit from it

will be an art which will get better over time.

Yes waste need to be reduced, and politics needs be kept in check, but at the end of the day we still need less cars and more money and congestion pricing does both.

Ed January 20, 2018 - 2:17 pm

Traffic management in general runs alot better if the government is not trying to extract revenue from the program, but I realize that ship sailed in this country along time ago.

But yeah, as some of the other commentators have pointed out, restricted hours for certain types of vehicles, also trying to segregate types of vehicles by route as well as time (bikes included by the way), and tolls on the bridges to get on and off the island are pretty much the way to go. Be suspicious of everything else.

One thing I’ll add that a good part of the cities’ traffic problems stem from the dual decisions to suburbanize Long island, and for the only way to get from Nassau and Suffolk to the mainland are through the city, with the most direct routes being through Manhattan. I realize we can’t do big construction projects due to cost inflation reasons that have nothing to do with corruption, but if there was a bridge-tunnel directly between Nassau and Westchester you would see alot of this congestion go away. And I actually think Moses’ cross-Manhattan expressways that everyone hates at least would have toned down the congestion by keeping this traffic separated from the normal day-to-day city traffic.

Adirondacker12800 January 20, 2018 - 3:26 pm

Gatsby had to use the Queensboro bridge to get from Nassau to Westchester. If I’m in Nassau County and I want to get to Westchester or vice versa I’m going to use the Bronx-Whitestone or the Throggs Neck Bridge. In some odd peculiar trip or unusual circumstances the Triboro.

SEAN January 21, 2018 - 4:43 pm

The junction of I-95 & I-287 plus the design of 287 itself was the reason why the cross sound bridge/ tunnel was overwhelmingly rejected in Westchester & is continually rejected every time the subject arises.

Thomas Schmidt January 21, 2018 - 12:32 am

The excessive tolls between the Bronx and Queens remain. Tolling the bridges into Manhattan and reducing the tolls where transit is poor makes sense (but there must be an IRONCLAD guarantee that the lower rates remain). Right now it costs $55 weekly to drive between both areas, which means that free flow of people in both directions is greatly reduced, reducing work opportunities on the bottom and increasing costs for employers.

That Cuomo doesn’t see this makes a mockery of his concerns for the poor.

Adirondacker12800 January 21, 2018 - 12:44 am

Poor people don’t own cars. At the moment, if you don’t want to pay tolls it is possible to get from Queens to the Bronx without paying one. And won’t have to in the future either. For that matter no one forces anyone to commute by automobile between the Bronx and Queens.

wiseinfrastructure January 21, 2018 - 2:48 pm

Yes poor people do own cars and often need them more than rich people because they work in the less ritzy parts of town where transit is not as good and often work less desirable hours when there are less buses.

No one is forced to do anything but one of the rolls of government is to facilitate the flow of people and goods so that we are a united and not fragmented ….states of america. There are times that tolls allow building of roads and bridges or even cover part of the cost of those who take transit. The tolls are then a facilitator of movement not a hindrance.

Certainly $8+ to go to between the Bronx and Queens (especially off hours or late hours) is such a hindrance.

And yes, one can cross the Hudson for $1.50 if they go up to Bear Mountain – thus doable but not realistic just as St Albans to Coop City is doable via the Queensboro Bridge and the first Avenue bridge.

Before technology, it was hard to have a smart flexible toll system. Now we should use tolls as a tool in overall traffic management for the betterment of most.

Bolwerk January 24, 2018 - 1:23 pm

For that matter no one forces anyone to commute by automobile between the Bronx and Queens.

I wouldn’t be so sure everyone has a simple choice on that point. Perhaps “no one forces” you, but if you’re anything below substantially high-income you take the housing and the job you can get and fill in the gap between them with the transportation you can get. And that’s ignoring other factors, like what your significant other needs, your range of choices for schools/childcare if you have kids, proximity to other family members or your social network, etc..

Though it’s kind of stunning that there’s not even discussion of putting a real transit link between The Bronx and Queens. If either were its own city, it’d be one of the ten biggest in the country. You’d think that would at least merit a light rail link.

Adirondacker12800 January 24, 2018 - 3:25 pm

People in Queens don’t take minimum wage jobs in the Bronx or vice versa. They can get a minimum wage job closer to home. Maybe even one they can walk to. If the job is good enough for a long commute, even if the commuting costs were free… it’s a good job that pays well or has other charms… they aren’t poor.

Bolwerk January 25, 2018 - 12:07 pm

Given that there are two transit bus routes between Queens and The Bronx, I seriously doubt there a no minimum wage workers traveling between the two.

Anyway, why the focus on the minimum wage? There is a massive gulf between minimum wage and anything resembling having some surplus income. Some people drive because they need to drive to get to work. CP probably almost always helps them, but there’s no reason to less well-off people who drive don’t exist.

Adirondacker12800 January 25, 2018 - 12:34 pm

because whenever someone mentions raising tolls someone else tries to bring poor people into it. Poor people don’t own cars.

Bolwerk January 25, 2018 - 9:26 pm

And it’s probably true. You can probably make several times the minimum wage and still be relatively “poor” in NYC.

Rick January 21, 2018 - 7:20 pm

You nailed it, Mr. Kabak — no one can Fix NYC without profound MTA cost reform. Giving them new money is flushing it down the toilet. We should resign ourselves to the fact that our subway has been stolen out from under our noses. Until it’s back in the hands of its rightful owners, it should be mourned as dead.No more ransom money for the goniffs!!!


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