MTA’s congestion pricing program back on track, again

MTA's congestion pricing program back on track, again

The MTA’s congestion pricing plan is moving forward, once again, after the agency was unexpectedly saddled with more than 400 follow up questions from federal officials back in March.

At the agency’s monthly board meeting on Wednesday, Chairman Janno Lieber confirmed that after more than three months of work, the MTA had answered all of the questions about how the environment might be impacted if it charges drivers a fee to enter Manhattan below 60th Street. The environmental assessment is a key bureaucratic hurdle the MTA must complete before implementing the nation’s first congestion pricing program.

“We’ll never be able to achieve our climate or air quality goals, or truly prioritize street space for the types of vehicles that we must have, like buses, police fire and sanitation vehicles and paratransit,” Lieber said Wednesday. “Until we have a system that disincentivizes private single occupancy vehicles from clogging up the central business district. Congestion pricing is the answer to that challenge.”

Once the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) approves the MTA’s environmental assessment the MTA still has a long way to go. It must conduct more public outreach, install devices to collect the tolls, and set a price that will ultimately raise $1 billion a year in revenue.

“FHWA has met weekly with the MTA and other New York stakeholders to work through and resolve comments on the Draft Environmental Assessment submitted earlier this year. Through collaborative revision, we have reached a milestone in the process with MTA providing FHWA with a resubmission that has addressed critical comments,” a spokesperson with FHWA wrote in a statement. “FHWA is already reviewing that resubmission and looks toward working with MTA to completing the environmental assessment so that it can be released for the final round of public meetings and public comment.”

The agency is expected to use that $1 billion a year congestion pricing is expected to bring in to then help sell bonds that would generate $15 billion that will go toward the current $55 billion capital plan.

“New Yorkers are beyond ready for congestion pricing. We can’t wait for modern, reliable and accessible subways. There’s not a moment to lose for faster buses and emergency vehicles, less air pollution and fewer carbon emissions and deadly collisions,” Danny Pearlstein , Riders Alliance policy and communications director, wrote in a statement: “Congestion pricing is essential to New York’s future. Federal and state leaders must maintain focus and do what it takes to speed up congestion pricing and deliver its vast benefits to all New Yorkers.”

Because congestion pricing was first delayed by the Trump administration, and then by the pandemic, and finally by the recent round of federal questions, the 2020-2024 capital plan will be in its last year by the time congestion pricing is actually generating revenue.

The good government group Reinvent Albany released a report Wednesday noting that because of the delay to congestion pricing the capital plan, which includes updating signals on six lines, making 70 stations ADA compliant, and purchasing hundreds of new train cars and buses, could be “ imperiled.”

When the capital plan was approved, congestion pricing was expected to go into effect in 2021 and cover 27% of the costs of the capital plan.

“As of May 2022, the MTA has on hand only 7% of the funds needed for the 2020-2024 capital plan, or $4 billion of the $55 billion budgeted,” the Reinvent Albany report noted.

Currently, the MTA said it expects congestion pricing will go into effect by the end of 2023.

Lieber said he agrees with the report about how crucial congestion pricing is to the Capital Plan, but argues there are currently no cash flow issues.

He said there was a 15 to 20 month delay to awarding projects due to the pandemic, but that the city and state have been contributing their promised allotment to the plan, so there is no current delay to any projects now.

News that the MTA answered all the federal questions comes a day after Gov. Kathy Hochul won the Democratic primary for governor. Hochul is a supporter of congestion pricing, while her Republican challenger, US Rep. Lee Zeldin, has promised to kill it if elected.

Mayor Eric Adams for his part has little sway in the project, although he can nominate one member to the MTA’s Traffic Mobility Review board, which will help determine the cost of tolls and if there are any exemptions, other than the ones written into law already . Speaking at an unrelated event on Wednesday, Adams suggested low income New Yorkers should be exempted from the tolls in some instances, such as a doctor’s appointment.

The law already exempts Manhattan residents that live in the congestion zone and earn less than $60,000 a year from the charges, as well as emergency vehicles and vehicles that transport paratransit riders.

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