Governor Andrew Cuomo is attempting to revive and revise his congestion pricing plan that died in the face of political opposition a year ago, this time with support from Mayor Bill de Blasio. Both politicians tout the plan as a way to raise revenue for the beleaguered subway and bus systems, as well as commuter railroads.
The updated version of the proposal, announced Tuesday, contains few specifics, such as the amount of the toll that would be charged to vehicles entering Manhattan south of 61st Street. But this iteration of the scheme shares one attribute with last year’s variation that will likely be of concern to many Lower Manhattan residents: The plan does not envision any exemption or discount for people who live within the congestion pricing zone. As a result, anyone who resides Downtown and owns a car would apparently be charged a significant levy each time they pulled their car out of the garage.
The 2018 version of the plan called for tolls (imposed between 6:00 am and 8:00 pm) that would range from $11.52 for private cars to $25.34 for trucks, with surcharges between $2.00 and $5.00 imposed on taxis and for-hire vehicles.
The conspicuous absence of any carveout for people who live within the toll zone 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 charged nine cents to cross 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.
Congestion pricing has also been implemented internationally, where discounts for residents appear to be the norm. In London, for example, the program is widely regarded as a success, and people who live within the tolling zone are granted a discount of 90 percent from the full charge of approximately $15.23, at current exchange rates.
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.
One reason that Lower Manhattan exceeds borough-wide averages for car ownership may be rooted in local history. Three large housing complexes were built in the 1960s and 70s to help draw residents to what had previously been exclusively a business district: Gateway Plaza, in Battery Park City; Independence Plaza, in Tribeca; and Southbridge Towers, in the Financial District. Each was originally a bastion of middle-class affordability, and all three were designed with ample parking facilities. Although affordability has come under siege at all of these developments in recent years, many residents in each still keep cars. For such people, congestion pricing may be one more step in the progression toward making Lower Manhattan unaffordable for middle-class residents.
In a knock-on effect, some economists predict that prices for all categories of retail products could increase within the affected zone, as deliveries by truck become more expensive and stores are forced to pass on this increased cost to their customers. In this scenario, small businesses would likely be hit especially hard.
Paul Goldstein, a member of Community Board 1 (CB1), where he chairs the Waterfront, Parks & Cultural Committee, and serves on the Land Use, Zoning & Economic Development Committee, observed that, “congestion pricing makes sense, but there should be provision like those put in place by other cities, such as London, giving residents reduced rates, so that when they use their vehicles, they are not charged an exorbitant fee. This is ridiculous. Not everyone who lives in Lower Manhattan is rich, although some people may think that’s the case. So this would be a reasonable compromise.”
Although the Governor’s and Mayor’s plan makes no accommodation for residents, it does contain multiple other exemptions for, “emergency vehicles… and vehicles operated by or transporting people with disabilities and individuals who have an identifiable hardship or limited ability to access medical facilities,” within the zone. Almost none of these terms are defined in the new proposal. Of particular note may be the meaning of “emergency vehicle.” On its face, this language seems to denote police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances. But Lower Manhattan streets have long been choked by more than 1,000 private vehicles each day, displaying government credentials (particularly those issued to law enforcement personnel), which enable them to park illegally and without cost, throughout the community. Whether such cars will fall under the category of “emergency vehicle” remains to be seen, but neither the Mayor nor the Governor has displayed much appetite for antagonizing the politically powerful unions that represent public employees. (The union agreement that governs the City’s management of police officers also requires that free parking be made available for their personal — as opposed to official — use near the offices to which they report. Creating an unavoidable toll barrier around such offices located within Lower Manhattan might arguably be construed as a violation of this agreement.)