In the face of political opposition and lukewarm public support, Governor Andrew Cuomo may be de-prioritizing his congestion pricing plan, which could have a significant impact on residents of Lower Manhattan. The proposal calls for imposing a series of electronic tolls on vehicles entering the area of Manhattan south of 60th Street, between 6:00 am and 8:00 pm. These levies would range from $11.52 for private cars to $25.34 for trucks, with a surcharges between $2.00 and $5.00 imposed on taxis and for-hire vehicles.
The plan, which the Governor touts as a way to raise billions of dollars to fix the City’s subway and bus system, contains no exemption or discount for residents of neighborhoods south of 60th Street. This is a departure from precedent that is applied in multiple other locations around the City and the State. Residents of Staten Island, for example, are given a discount on the toll of the Verrazano Bridge, where the full rate is $17.00, but they pay an effective rate of $5.50 — a reduction of 68 percent. In Queens, residents of the Rockaways and Broad Channel pay $1.41 to traverse the Gil Hodges Memorial or Cross Bay Bridges, a discount of 67 percent from the full toll of $4.25. Further afield, residents of Grand Island (near the Canadian border) are given a 91 percent discount on the bridge that connects their community to the rest of New York State, which amounts to a 91 percent discount from the $1.00 toll paid by non-residents.
The charges contemplated by the congestion pricing plan — which were formulated by an advisory panel, Fix NYC, created by Mr. Cuomo last October to devise new funding sources for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (the agency that oversees subways, bus lines, and commuter rail service), while also easing traffic congestion — could weigh heavily on Lower Manhattan communities where car ownership is higher than the norm for Manhattan as a whole. A 2015 study by the online real estate research site, AddressReport.com, found that Tribeca and Battery Park City are the two neighborhoods with the highest rates of car ownership anywhere in the borough, with 36 percent and 28 percent of households reporting that they keep at least one car. (Conversely, the same report found that the Financial District has the second-lowest prevalence of car ownership in Manhattan, with only 14 percent of households reporting that they have a car.) In a knock-on effect, some economists predict that prices for all categories of retail products would increase within the affected zone, as deliveries by truck became more expensive and stores were forced to pass on this increased cost to their customers. In this scenario, small businesses would likely be hit especially hard.
The Governor’s plan also faces strong political headwinds. Mayor Bill de Blasio had yet to endorse it, proposing instead a “millionaire’s tax” to fund improvements to mass transit. The mayor is joined in his reservations by multiple City and State elected officials from the outer boroughs (many of whose constituents drive into Manhattan), as well as John Flanagan the Majority Leader of the State Senate.
An analysis released February 15 by the widely respected Quinnipiac University Poll found that the plan is opposed by 54 percent of New York City voters overall, and 57 percent among voters in the suburban counties surrounding the five boroughs. (Upstate voters, by contrast, support the measure by a margin of 46 percent to 39 percent, the poll found.) Throughout the State as a whole, 49 percent of voters oppose the plan, while 43 percent support it, according to Quinnipiac.
The poll contained no data specific to Downtown residents, but informal, anecdotal indications are that people who live within the square mile of Lower Manhattan, while generally favoring measures conducive to improved mass transit or a “greener” environment (two key arguments in support of congestion pricing), are also skeptical about any proposal that could add to the already considerable cost of living here.
But it is likely the larger (rather than local) political context that may have led the Governor back away from the plan, almost imperceptibly, in recent days. Last week, his office sent a series of proposed budget amendments to the State legislature. While nothing in these documents explicitly disavowed the congestion pricing, neither did they contain any mention of it. Most tellingly, these measures contained no proposed allocation of funds to implement even the first phases of the plan in the State’s 2019 budget. This conspicuous absence echoed a similar omission from the Governor’s January 16 budget address, which also failed to argue for (or even mention) the congestion pricing plan. That noted, the final budget is not due until April, and often slips past that deadline, which means that the Governor could yet revive the plan in time for the upcoming fiscal year’s spending plan. But the recent combination of official silence and administrative inaction on congestion pricing also follows another indication that the plan may not be a priority for the Cuomo administration. There has been no outreach from Albany to the communities below 60th Street that would be directly affected by the proposal. This area is covered by Community Boards 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 — none of which have been offered an official presentation on the project. While such a step is not legally required before the State government can implement a new policy, it could (if undertaken) have the effect of building local support, or at least mitigating opposition to the plan. In either case, such briefings would be a sign that Mr. Cuomo’s team is serious about moving ahead with congestion pricing in the near future.
State Senator Brian Kavanagh
Community leaders and elected officials representing Lower Manhattan have voiced a range of opinions on the plan. State Senator Brian Kavanagh says, “the MTA is in crisis and our streets are more gridlocked than ever. Any feasible plan that would address these issues must be on the table, and I believe congestion pricing should be part of the equation. Of course the details matter – and I look forward to reviewing the Governor’s proposal when he releases it. We must ensure any plan we enact is effective and doesn’t unduly burden any New Yorker or community, including those in Lower Manhattan.”
State Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou notes, “we’re closely following the Governor’s FixNYC proposal as it develops. There are details in the plan that need to be clarified, and I expect that some of this will be presented to the State legislature. We recognize that the MTA is in dire need of a steady revenue stream and that congestion pricing is a viable way to secure the funds we need to make improvements to our public transportation. However, at this time, we’re still not 100 percent certain that all the revenue generated from congestion pricing will go directly toward fixing our public transit — and we must ensure that this is the case. Residents already face a high cost of living in our neighborhoods, and if congestion pricing is introduced, I don’t want there to be any questions about where the funds are going.”
Ms. Niou continues, “there is no doubt that congestion is a problem in Lower Manhattan, and we need to make sure that we appropriately address the impact of this plan on our residents. In my district, a big reason why some residents drive is because of the lack of public transportation options. For instance, there is very limited train service east of Essex Street and in Battery Park City, which affects working-class residents, families living in public housing, and seniors in co-ops. It is critical that we remain cognizant of these limitations, especially as we delve into the inner workings of the proposal, and I look forward to engaging with constituents as we review this plan together.”
Councilmember Margaret Chin
City Council member Margaret Chin observes that, “over the last few weeks, many residents, including those in Battery Park City, have shared with me their concerns about the Governor’s congestion pricing proposal. As the conversation continues in Albany, it is my expectation that this important feedback from residents in Lower Manhattan will be taken into account by policymakers. As the Council member representing some of the busiest parts of our city, I strongly believe that any plan instituted by the State should address, first and foremost, the safety of our children, seniors and everyone else sharing our roadways.”
Community Board 1 (CB1) chair Anthony Notaro says, “CB1 has long advocated for reduction in traffic of all kinds clogging our streets and generating greenhouse gases, not to speak of the safety issues crossings our streets. So addressing this is important, but the issue will be the process and how open and transparent it must be. The community must be engaged early on, so any plan accounts for the benefits and the costs that might come to those of us who live in the congestion zone. We will work with our elected officials to ensure that all stakeholders are involved and reasonable options are explored. But as of now there is no plan.”
And Patrick Kennell, chair of CB1’s Land Use, Zoning, and Economic Development Committee, says, “it would be understandable for the Governor to take more time with this. I appreciate the work of the Fix NYC panel and its set of recommendations, but as they say, the devil is in the details. And we don’t even have a formal plan or bill yet. While everyone agrees the New York City public transit system needs immediate fixes, and traffic and mobility problems in Lower Manhattan are getting worse, not better, any future ‘congestion pricing’ legislation requires a deliberative approach and direct discussions with local communities, because so many people and economies will be impacted. This is a big decision, and I have great confidence in Assembly Member Niou, State Senator Kavanagh and our other local elected representatives in Albany to take the lead in discussions with the Governor and other leaders about any plans or solutions.”