After nearly two years of political delays under the Trump Administration, New York City’s congestion pricing plan is one step closer to becoming a reality, as the Biden Administration’s DOT finally gave the MTA approvals to move forward with the environmental review process. As expected, the MTA will have to prepare only an Environmental Assessment rather than a full-fledged Environmental Impact Statement, and a long and pointless logjam put in place by a president trying to punish states that didn’t vote for him has been cleared, just two months after Biden’s inauguration.
The decision was a long time coming. Following the March 17th MTA Board meeting, I asked Pat Foye, the agency chief, if New York had received any word on the environmental review required for New York’s nascent congestion pricing proposal. While the Biden team had telegraphed a quick response, after nearly two months into the new administration, the MTA was still waiting for an answer, and Foye told me that two months simply “wasn’t that long a time” in the world of federal transportation policy.
Well, the wait ended on Tuesday as the Federal Administration, as anticipated, informed the MTA, NYS DOT and NYC DOT that a shorter Environmental Assessment will be sufficient to gain approval for congestion pricing, rather than a full-fledged Environmental Impact Statement. The decision means the MTA could complete the environmental review process this year with congestion pricing suddenly on the horizon for 2022, if the political stars align just right.
“The FHWA looks forward to assisting New York so we can arrive at a prompt and informed NEPA determination on this important and precedent-setting project,” Acting Federal Highway Administrator Stephanie Pollack said in a statement. “This approach will ensure that the public participates as local and state leaders explore new possibilities for reducing congestion, improving air quality and investing in transit to increase ridership.”
The FHWA announced the decision via press release and shed some light on the hold-up. The feds had determined that New York must join the FHWA’s Value Pricing Pilot Program (VPPP) to be able to implement congestion pricing and doing so would trigger a review under the National Environmental Policy Act. The MTA had hoped to avoid the costly and time-consuming EIS process which could have taken up to two years and had requested approvals to move forward with the Environmental Assessment instead. The MTA has maintained that it could complete an EA in three months, as Streetsblog’s Dave Colon reminded the world on Tuesday, but I would anticipate a slightly longer review process.
As the MTA and state and local DOTs commence the EA, the statutorily-required Traffic Mobility Review Board should convene to develop the pricing proposals, thus expediting the timeline to get congestion pricing off the ground. After all, the state’s politicians still want the transit-funding, congestion-busting policy to be implemented, right?
With Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, their traffic-limiting bona fides are ripe for questioning. The two have long self-identified as motorists first with a love-hate (or just hate-hate) relationship with transit. Still, they both expressed thanks to the FHWA and reiterated their support for the traffic pricing scheme. Cuomo’s statement was verbose:
“Congestion pricing is an internationally proven method to reduce traffic congestion, enhance the availability and reliability of public transportation, and improve our air quality, and it will play a critical role as New York and the nation begin to recover from the pandemic and build back stronger and better than before. This advancement is also another step forward in generating the $15 billion the state needs to fund the MTA’s five-year $51.5 billion capital plan, which will transform the accessibility, reliability and convenience of the system for users of all ages and abilities.
“We thank President Biden and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg for advancing this important program, and we look forward to continuing to work together to further advance our nation-leading $306 billion infrastructure plan, which is preparing the State to be globally competitive for generations to come. This announcement…demonstrates once again the commitment of our new partners in Washington to support our efforts to move New York in the right direction.”
The mayor’s was terse. “Mass transit is the present and future of this city, and this day is long overdue,” de Blasio said. “I thank President Biden, Secretary Buttigieg, my fellow elected officials, and every advocate who called for a smarter approach to congestion and more reliable funding for our city’s subways and buses. New York City stands ready to get this program started and build a recovery for all of us.”
Advocates celebrated the news but with some concern as they called on the Governor to prioritize established a functional congestion pricing. Many in New York’s transit community are skeptical Cuomo will see through congestion pricing plan and have long believed Cuomo was satisfied that Trump had put a hold on congestion pricing approvals. Without Trump, Cuomo had no political foil, and the feds’ delaying a congestion pricing plan the governor never truly embraced played into Cuomo’s wheelhouse. Now, plagued by scandal, Cuomo may just push on to curry favor with some of his more vocal and skeptical transportation critics.
“Riders welcome the Biden administration’s prompt decision to order an environmental assessment of congestion pricing. This accelerated public review will expedite essential new revenue to make New York’s subway system reliable and accessible,” Riders Alliance Executive Director Betsy Plum said. “Governor Cuomo must now complete the assessment as quickly as possible so the MTA can start congestion pricing with no new special interest exemptions in 2022.”
Now, though, with congestion pricing even more of a reality, the real jockeying beings. As I wrote for Curbed New York nearly three years ago, congestion pricing is a progressive solution to transit funding and even more so in the aftermath of a pandemic that saw New Yorkers who could afford to flock to their cars. Despite some complaints from drivers that the pandemic has made congestion pricing moot, the increased volume of cars heading to Manhattan at a time when offices remain empty and entertainment venues shutters underscores the need to stop crippling congestion before it starts while restoring faith in the transit system that powers NYC and fully funding ambitious expansion efforts. Make no mistake about it: It will be a fight to craft a proper congestion pricing plan with few carve-outs for drivers.
Tuesday was a good day for NYC, but that fight is just beginning. Another piece I wrote a few years ago for Curbed — this one on the need to avoid congestion pricing exemptions — still rings true two years later. A successful plan will include few or no exemptions, and Manhattan’s drivers will just have to learn with that reality. MTA funding and the need to limit congestion on the island demand it. Still, this week was a momentous one. Nearly 13 years after Michael Bloomberg first proposed pricing access to New York’s crowded streets, relief is finally on the way. Even with a battle ahead to ensure implementation is quick and proper, simply getting this determination from DOT was a big victory for the MTA, for transit advocates and for New York City.
“It’s more important than ever that our region has a strong and robust MTA to help power the economic recovery from this unprecedented crisis, and as traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels we must tackle congestion,” Foye said on Tuesday. “With this guidance on an environmental assessment now in hand, the MTA is ready to hit the ground running to implement the Central Business District Tolling Program. We are already working on preliminary design for the roadway toll system and infrastructure, and we look forward to working with our colleagues at the Federal Highway Administration to conduct the review and broad public outreach so that we can move forward with the remainder of the program as soon as possible.”