CB1 Mulls Tolling Plan, While Albany Feuds with Washington
Dr. Betty Kay: “The bottom line is tolls must generate $1 billion per year. The idea is to encourage people not to bring their cars in.”
A recent meeting of the Transportation Committee of Community Board 1 (CB1) became the forum for a heated discussion about the merits of the congestion pricing plan that is slated to bring tolls to vehicles entering Lower Manhattan (including those of residents) as soon as next January.
Committee chair Dr. Betty Kay began by outlining the rationale for the plan, saying, “there are some benefits to doing this. The State’s Climate Leadership law requires that we reduce carbon output to 40 recent of 1990 levels by 2030. And the Department of Transportation says that the transportation sector is responsible 35 percent of the State’s carbon. It’s transportation that has been lagging, while buildings and waste have already made cuts. So we need a lot of cuts to transportation carbon.” Other projected benefits of congestion pricing, she noted, “would include reductions in air pollution and noise pollution.”
Turning to the impact on Lower Manhattan residents, who would be in the position of having to pay for the privilege of driving to or from their homes, she observed, “the number of residents who actually take vehicles to get to work is under ten percent.”
This led Committee member Justine Cuccia to observe, “it’s not about commuting to work. That’s not the only criterion. That’s not what bothers me. Going to my doctor appointments, coming to and leaving the city, shopping. The cost of my food, cost of my deliveries. The cost of food coming into Gristede’s or Whole Foods, all of those come from outside. All of those costs are going to be borne by people who live in the district. This is not about commuting.”
Mitch Frohman: “So this is going to be great for rich people, who can afford to pay for convenience, to have less traffic. It will be better for them, and worse for everybody else. It’s a classist program.”
Committee member Mitch Frohman said, “I don’t have a car, but those expenses will directly affect me, and all of us.” Pointing to a chart displayed at the meeting, he said, “I’m in one of the colors that says ‘he doesn’t have a car,’ and I’m not driving to work. But I’m still affected, one thousand percent.”
Committee member Marc Ameruso said, “if you live within the district and you own a car, why should you have to pay congestion pricing? You live here! What’s the purpose of this?”
CB1’s District Manager, Lucien Reynolds, interjected, “this is a law that’s on the books. So what you’re looking at is how best to react to the levers we do have available to us.”
This led Ms. Cuccia to demand, “exemptions for residents!” This was a reference to a CB1 resolution enacted in 2018, which noted that, “other major cities, such as London, Singapore and Stockholm, have successfully implemented a congestion pricing plan along with significant discounts to those living in the congestion zone. London’s plan, for example, offers a 90 percent discount, and substantial discounts are routinely offered even in New York such as [to] Staten Island residents using the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge.”
Indeed, the most recent round of toll increases for bridges and tunnels operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) actually contains a further rollback to tolls for Staten Island residents using the Verrazzano Bridge.
When the toll for that span jumped to $19 last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo froze the resident rate at $5.50. This translates to a discount that effectively increased from 68 percent to 72 percent. Mr. Cuomo justified this preferential treatment for Staten Island residents (who cannot drive onto or off of their island borough without paying a toll) by saying, “the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge is a critical link between Staten Island and the rest of New York, and residents don’t deserve to be nickel and dimed every time they cross it.” He added that the discount for residents, “is the right and fair thing to do and will ensure Staten Islanders keep more money in their pockets.” Why he apparently believes that a similar consideration for Lower Manhattan residents is not the right or fair thing to do, and why Lower Manhattan residents should not similarly keep more money in their pockets, remains unclear.
Justine Cuccia: “We should ask for as much of an exemption as we possibly can. Our job is to advocate for this community and our constituents within CB1. The conversation I want to have is what is best for the people who live in CB1.”
What is clear is that no such exemption is planned for residents of Lower Manhattan, who will (like Staten Island dwellers) be effectively trapped within the toll zone, unable to drive in or out without paying a fee that may be as high as $11.52, according to a preliminary version of the congestion pricing plan. An additional variant of the proposal would charge residents for driving their cars on any street within the toll zone, even if they do not cross its boundaries. (This would be the equivalent of charging Staten Island residents a toll merely for taking cars out of their driveways, without crossing over any bridge.)
The conspicuous absence of any carve-out for people who live within the toll zone is a departure from prevailing practice in multiple other locations around the City and the State, in addition to Staten Island. 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 (relative to the $1.00 toll paid by non-residents) on the bridge that connects their community to the rest of New York State. Congestion pricing has also been implemented internationally (such as in London, as cited in the CB1 resolution), where discounts for residents appear to be the norm.
The lack of any local exemption 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.
Dr. Kay continued that, “the MTA will run this program.” A Traffic Mobility Review Board (with six members, appointed by the Governor), which yet to be formed, “will be making recommendations, but MTA will decide. Passengers vehicles will be tolled once per day, and implementation will be no sooner than the end of this year. There has to be a period of at least 30 days of testing and 60 days of public comment.” She added that, “the tolling infrastructure is not subject to any City or State environmental review, or any other law.”
This provoked Mr. Ameruso to blurt out, “cowards!”
Mr. Frohman observed, “so they just did this arbitrarily, disregarding the law. It’s sleazy.”
Mr. Ameruso continued, “the whole thing is sleazy. As long as they get enough money, they don’t care about climate change.”
Dr. Kay elaborated that, “the tolling financials are in the law. The MTA has already started to sell $55.4 billion in bonds that are based on this revenue. They need to produce at least $15 billion more than program expenses through 2024.”
Ms. Cuccia said, “I don’t care what their budget is, I care what my budget is.”
Mr. Ameruso cut in, “if they didn’t waste so much money they wouldn’t need this.”
Mr. Reynolds provided additional context, saying, “think of it like a tax levy. There’s a certain amount of money the City expects to pull from property taxes. In the same way, the MTA has already bonded against what they expect to generate from congestion pricing, and all that money is already earmarked in their capital plan. Any exemption you introduce, they are going to make that money back in another way, from somebody else. So it’s a balancing game.”
Ms. Cuccia asked, “what if we all just left?”
Mr. Ameruso replied. “it’s happening already.”
Ms. Cuccia continued, “my answer to this is that what they are doing is forcing everybody who lives in Lower Manhattan who does not have an unlimited source of income to leave. They are looking for collect all these taxes and fees, like the mansion tax and congestion pricing. If they don’t take it from one pocket, they’ll take it from another. What they are going to create is a City full of people who don’t live here.”
Marc Ameruso: “if you live within the district and you own a car, why should you have to pay congestion pricing? You live here!”
Mr. Frohman pressed, “this is like all those hidden charges and garbage markups that appear on telephone bill and electric bill.”
Mr. Ameruso continued, “it’s biggest scam ever!”
Dr. Kay noted that, “the bottom line is tolls must generate $1 billion per year. A congestion pricing ‘lockbox’ will be created for these sources to stream into. The distribution will be 80 percent to New York City Transit, meaning subways and buses, and 10 percent each to the Long Island Railroad Metro-North. The idea is to encourage people not to bring their cars in.”
She added that, “there will be exemptions for cars taking the FDR Drive or West Street to crossings like the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, but the tolls will be triggered when a car turns onto a local street.”
“Meaning as they turn into Battery Park City,” said Ms. Cuccia.
Mr. Frohamn posited that, “when there are crazy traffic jams, some people will turn off West Side Highway, and if they don’t anymore, this will be creating even worse traffic and worse congestion.”
Mr. Ameruso said, “exactly — and it’s a nightmare now.”
Dr. Kay replied, “it’s a better scenario than you think. There are exemptions: emergency vehicles and vehicles transportation disabled persons.”
Mr. Frohman retorted, “this is the same principle that the airlines use, charging more to provide better service. So this is going to be great for rich people, who can afford to pay for convenience to have less traffic. It will be better for them, and worse than everybody else. It’s a classist program.”
Mr. Ameruso agreed that, “politicians just waste. This is the highest tax state in the nation. Where does all that money go? They need more money to run trains? It’s ridiculous!”
Dr. Kay acknowledged that, “most doormen live outside the district, but many drive to work. My doormen are going to be screaming. It’s going to change for them.”
Ms. Cuccia predicted, “they are going to quit!”
Mr. Ameruso reflected, “that might be the only way to get to work from where they live. This is social engineering to change people’s behavior.”
Dr. Kay countered, “it’s not social engineering. It’s meant to reduce pollution.”
“Come on,” Mr. Ameruso answered, “that’s just the excuse.”
“There a lot of reform built in,” Dr. Kay insisted, “for those looking for positives in this law.”
“I haven’t seen one yet,” Ms. Cuccia rejoined.
Dr. Kay said, “this calls for a reorganization of the MTA.”
“That should happen any way,” Mr. Frohman pushed back.
“How about eliminating it?” Mr. Ameruso asked. He continued, “there is a lot of basis here for a legal challenge. There’s a lot of good stuff here for when that law suit is filed.”
Dr. Kay noted, “there have been exemptions requested already by police and fire unions,” which would allow their members to drive into Manhattan without paying any toll.”
“So they won’t have to pay for congestion pricing, on top having illegal free parking with their placards?” Ms. Cuccia asked.
Mr. Ameruso continued, “certainly residents who live within the zone are a logical choice for an exemption.” He added, “this will put small businesses out of business.”
A member of the audience asked, “when will this go into effect?”
Dr. Kay replied, “not before end of year.”
Ms. Cuccia retorted, “so we have until then to get out.”
Mr. Reynolds said, “if we have a significant carve-out, there will have to be a rebalancing onto another group. For example, if we get a carve-out for residents, then everyone else will have to pay slightly more. We have to know that everything will have to be rebalanced onto others.
Mr. Ameruso reacted, “that’s their problem.”
Ms. Cuccia agreed, saying, “my position is going to be that we should ask for as much of an exemption as we possibly can. I don’t want somebody to come in here and tell me what we have to give up and how much deeper I should be digging in my pocket to make it a better deal for somebody else. That’s not our job — let them fight for themselves. The balancing should be on the shoulders of the Mobility Review Board. Our job is to advocate for this community and our constituents within CB1. The conversation I want to have is what is best for the people who live in CB1.”
“We should coordinate with the other community boards, where most residents are not in favor of this,” Mr. Ameruso proposed.
“This is like to cruelty of immigration policy, pitting one group against another,” Mr. Frohman noted.
Dr. Kay offered, “tolling will go way down in the middle of the night.”
Ms. Cuccia replied, “I don’t go to the doctor in the middle of the night. I go to the doctor in the middle of the day.”
Mr. Ameruso urged her on, saying, “fight for your convictions.”
In a separate, but related development, the federal government is withholding approval that is legally necessary for the congestion pricing plan to proceed. This has emerged as the latest episode in an ongoing feud between the administrations of Governor Cuomo and President Donald Trump. Over the last several years, the White House has chosen to kill (or else leave in limbo) funding or consent for multiple local projects that both Albany and City Hall regard as essential. These include budget allocations for the proposed Gateway Program (which would include a pair of new train tunnels between Midtown and Newark), a new rail link to LaGuardia Airport, and the next phase Second Avenue Subway (slated to stretch from 96th and 125th Streets). Even in the absence of funding, however, federal acquiescence is needed for programs like the Army Corps of Engineers’ “New York-New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries Study” (a research project that aimed to devise new ways of protecting the region from sea-level rise), which was canceled in February, and enrollment in federal Trusted Traveler programs (from which New York residents were recently barred, in retaliation for the State’s pro-immigration policies).
The congestion pricing plan falls into this latter category. Although the State and City are not seeking federal funds to implement it, Washington’s permission is required, because federal laws ban the imposition of tolls on roads built or maintained, even in part, with federal funds, or are considered part of the interstate highway system (which falls within federal jurisdiction). An online map illustrating roads that come under the purview of the Federal Highway Administration shows that dozens of local roads fall into this category. In addition to the predictable names (such as West and Canal Streets, and the FDR Drive), there are some counterintuitive entries, such as Broadway and West Broadway, as well as Church, Chambers, Warren, Water, and Pearl Streets.
A related impediment is a separate federal law requiring that major changes to such roads undergo an environmental review. Although Albany legislators, at Mr. Cuomo’s urging, exempted congestion pricing from such oversight at the City or State level, they have no power waive this provision at the federal level. Further complicating matters is that this law requires two possible (and very different) forms of environmental review, with the choice as to which made by Washington regulators. But federal highway officials have yet to announce which of these standards they want applied. And the MTA has not yet begun work on either form of review. In any case, such a study could take many months, or possibly several years. Its results would also to subject to challenges in federal court, by opponents of congestion pricing.
If the Trump Administration remains unresponsive to Albany’s requests for approval and guidance, this could have the effect of delaying the program, perhaps indefinitely. If the White House decides to oppose the plan, this would likely have the effect of cancelling it entirely. If that happens, Mr. Cuomo has predicted that a 30 percent hike in subway and bus fares will be necessary.
But two scenarios may mitigate this possibility. If the results of national elections in November turn Mr. Trump out of the White House, or deliver to Democrats a strong majority in the Senate (and maintain control of the House of Representatives), then federal approval would become more likely. Even without control of the White House, united Democratic Party leadership in both houses of Congress would be in a position to push through federal approval of congestion pricing.
In the meantime, Mr. Cuomo is threatening to sue the Trump Administration in federal court if approval for congestion pricing is not forthcoming soon.
(Editor’s note: Ms. Cuccia is related to the reporter who wrote this story.)
Church Street School for Music & Art
Celebrates 30 Years
Church Street School for Music and Art
has been the only non-profit music and art school
in Lower Manhattan for 30 years!
We will be celebrating at our annual gala TONIGHT!
Tuesday, March 10th 6:30pm to 10:30pm
Julia Stiles is this year’s Artist Chair
and the school will honor
The Kleiman Family: Laurie, Norman, Daryl, Charlie & Gabe.
The Event will take place at the glamorous Tribeca Rooftop, located at Two Desbrosses Street and will include music, dancing, cocktails,
Join a fitness dance party with upbeat Latin music of salsa, merengue, hip hop, and more! Enthusiastic instruction creates a fun community of dancers who learn new steps each week. Bring your friends and share in this fit and fun dancing community.
Stretching the Canvas Exhibition Tour
National Museum of the American Indian
A 45-minute tour of Stretching the Canvas: Eight Decades of Native Painting. Drawing from the National Museum of the American Indian’s rich permanent collection, the exhibition presents nearly 40 paintings that transcend, represent or subvert conventional ideas of authenticity. One Bowling Green
National Museum of the American Indian
Touch, investigate, inquire and learn. Objects and images tell profound stories. Join Cultural Interpreters as they share objects and narratives in our galleries. Gain a deeper understanding of history, culture, and art from hundreds of Indigenous nations in North, Central, and South America. One Bowling Green.
CB1 Youth & Education Committee
Community Board 1 – Conference Room 1 Centre Street, Room 2202A-North
1) New Amsterdam Library construction/reopening – Update by Sydney Renwick, Intergovernmental Affairs, New York Public Library
2) Special Education legislation forum – Report and possible Resolution
3) Pier 40 youth programming updates – Report by Andrew Zelter
4) Trinity Commons opening – Report
Arrivals & Departures
Cruise Ships in the Harbor
Sunday, March 15
Anthem of the Seas
Inbound 5:30 am (Bayonne); outbound 3:00 pm
Port Canaveral, FL/Bahamas
Inbound 6:15 am; outbound 3:30 pm
Port Canaveral, FL/Bahamas
Monday, March 16
Inbound 9:15 am; outbound 4:30 pm
Many ships pass Battery Park City on their way to and from the midtown passenger ship terminal. Others may be seen on their way to or from docks in Brooklyn and Bayonne. Stated times, when appropriate, are for passing the Colgate Clock and are based on sighting histories, published schedules and intuition. they are also subject to tides, fog, winds, freak waves, hurricanes and the whims of upper management.
Alexander Graham Bell
241 BC – First Punic War: Battle of the Aegates Islands – The Romans sink the Carthaginian fleet bringing the First Punic War to an end.
1681 – In 1681, King Charles II handed over a large piece of his American land holdings to William Penn to satisfy a debt the king owed to Penn’s father. This land included present-day Pennsylvania and Delaware. Penn immediately sailed to America and his first step on American soil took place in New Castle in 1682.
1801 – First census in Great Britain
1849 – After working on a boat as a young man, Abraham Lincoln thought of and devised and eventually applied for a patent that would be able to lift boats over shoals and obstructions in a river. It is the only United Statespatent ever registered to a President of the United States. Documentation of this patent was discovered in 1997.
1862 – US issues first paper money ($5, $10, $20, $50, $100, $500 & $1000)
1876 – First telephone call made (Alexander Graham Bell to Thomas Watson)
Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, when he made the first call on March 10, 1876, to his assistant, Thomas Watson: “Mr. Watson–come here–I want to see you.”
1906 – Coal dust explosion kills 1,060 at Courrieres France
1945 – The Army Air Force firebombs Tokyo, and the resulting firestorm kills more than 100,000 people, mostly civilians.
1952 – Military coup led by General Fulgencio Batista in Cuba
1969 – James Earl Ray pleads guilty to murder of Martin Luther King Jr
1928 – James Earl Ray, assassin (Martin Luther King Jr)
1935 – Gary Owens, announcer (Laugh-in)
1957 – Osama bin Laden, Riyadh Saudi Arabia, Islamic militant and founder of al-Qaeda
1913 – Harriet Tubman, abolitionist, dies in NY at 93