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What’s next for congestion fees: How to make the tolls better and fairer

Within five minutes after Gov. Hochul announced the postponement of the initiation of the congestion pricing charges, my email inbox filled up with panicked messages from advocate groups pleading for support to challenge the governor’s order. Some of these people are afraid that the governor’s move put a stake in the heart of their beloved program. Actually, I think she may have saved it.

As I predicted in my March 12 Daily News op-ed (“How to save congestion pricing”), as we got closer to CP’s implementation, there would be stronger and stronger push back against many of the politicians who had initially supported it. Sure enough, in recent weeks the heat began to mount. Why? Here are some reasons as I see it.

First, the charge for the average person is too high. The $15 charge was set, not for what people could pay, but for the need to raise the arbitrary $1 billion goal. London initially charged a much smaller number to give people a chance to adjust. Why not $6.94, the toll the MTA charges on the Triborough Bridge? And to spread out as well as reduce the rush hour congestion, change the times to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Second, there are several gross inequities in its design. Staten Islanders, who have to pay a toll just to get off their island should not have to pay another to get into another part of New York City. At the other extreme, someone who lives on 58th St. can drive to City Hall and not pay the toll, but if they have a doctor’s appointment at Cornell on 61st St., they will have to pay.

That particularly hurts people with disabilities who depend on cars. And if the effort is to reduce Midtown congestion, why does someone who drives down Second Ave. and gets on the Queensboro Bridge, never entering Midtown, have to pay the toll? Give anyone who lives in Manhattan the same discount Staten Islanders get on the Verrazzano. Charge them $2.75.

Third, it hit many people the hardest who have no real or viable mass transit choice. Mass transit is not universally available throughout the region. And the people who don’t have good access are not the rich. Most are modern working class. Actually, it’s not even universally available throughout Manhattan. For example, the Lower East Side is notoriously underserved. A working-class person who lives there and has a job in an outer borough will get financially whacked by this toll.

Fourth, it doesn’t adequately charge the vehicles that are the real cause of Midtown congestion. If the issue is congestion, charge the Ubers and Lyfts, which account for 43% of Midtown cars, what yellow taxis have had to pay to operate in Midtown. Charge these For-Hire Vehicles upfront $15,000 per year, the average carrying cost of having a medallion. That will make up most of “loss” associated with reducing the basic fee.

In addition to those FHVs, why not charge the bicycles a modest amount ($1 a day?) for taking part of the street capacity? (Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot. They are God’s people while drivers are the Devil’s.)

Fifth, the timing is absurd. Although things are better in Manhattan since the bottom of the pandemic, we are nowhere near full recovery. Why scare people away? Maybe set a minimum commercial occupancy rate before implementing the toll?

Sixth, there are smarter ways of raising the needed money. A 10-cent gasoline tax throughout the MTA region will raise $100 million-200 million per year. Implement a residential parking program in the city. Ten dollars a month to park exclusively in your neighborhood would raise another $100 million.

Given these points, clearly the governor’s order makes sense. It now provides the opportunity to rethink the program and correct many of its weaknesses. This is not about congestion. It’s not about pollution. Although to many advocates, this is just about being anti-car. But it’s really about raising much needed money for the MTA.

Chairman Janno Lieber and his team are doing a superb job with the resources they have been given, but if NYC hopes to remain one of the great cities of the world, we need to be sure the MTA gets the money it needs. Make the corrections, charge the right people, build more subways and expand the express buses.

Riccio is a former New York City Department of Transportation commissioner and a former MTA Board member.


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