Why Drivers Could Soon Pay $23 to Reach Manhattan

It could soon be more expensive to drive through Manhattan’s most densely packed streets, as a tolling program that aims to reduce traffic in New York City crossed a major hurdle this month.

The plan is the first of its kind in the United States and seeks to discourage cars from squeezing into one of the world’s busiest commercial districts — roughly the southern third of the length of Manhattan — while boosting public transit. The zone runs from 60th Street to the Battery, but omits the Eastside artery of the F.D.R. Drive and the West Side Highway along the borough’s edges. State lawmakers gave the Metropolitan Transportation Authority permission to develop and run the program in April 2019.

Roughly 7.7 million people flowed through this district on an average weekday before the pandemic — nearly two times the population of Los Angeles. Three-fourths of those trips were made by public transit, and about 24 percent were made by car, taxi, van or truck, according to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council. The collection of neighborhoods that make up the area hold the majority of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, as well as attractions such as Times Square and Madison Square Garden.

The fees levied to enter the area are expected to create $1 billion for public transportation annually — money that is badly needed by the city’s subways, buses and commuter rail lines. The authority is expecting a $2.5 billion deficit in 2025, and congestion pricing would provide new revenue.

Here are some things to know about congestion pricing:

How much will congestion pricing cost drivers?

Prices would vary depending on what type of vehicle is entering the district and at what time.

Officials haven’t decided on a fee scale yet, but a transit study released last week offers a glimpse of various scenarios under consideration. One proposal would charge commuters with an E-ZPass account $23 for a rush hour trip into Midtown and $17 during off-peak hours.

Fees could be much higher for those crossing in a bigger vehicle without E-ZPass — under one proposal, large trucks who do so could pay more than $100.

The transit study was a key step in the project’s approval process which will involve Washington, Albany and New York City transit officials.

When does it start?

Fees could go into effect as soon as late 2023.

The plan was supposed to launch last year, but it was derailed when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo resigned in the face of a sexual harassment scandal. After years of resistance, Mr. Cuomo — a Democrat and car enthusiast who had balked at the idea — pushed New York to become the first American city to embrace congestion pricing.

Because tolls would be collected on roads that have received federal funding, local and state transportation agencies had to commission the newly released study to avoid harming people from disadvantaged communities. Now that the report is complete, the agencies will hold a series of hearings from Aug. 25 through Aug. 31 so the public can chime in.

Once federal, state and local leaders hammer out recommendations for toll rates — and any discounts, exemptions and other allowances — the final approval comes from the M.T.A. board.

Who will be exempt?

Certain vehicles carrying a person with disabilities and authorized emergency vehicles won’t pay. People whose primary residence is inside the district and whose income is less than $60,000 would be eligible for a state tax credit equal to the amount of their tolls.

The toll rates for different types of vehicles, like delivery trucks, could be different than the rates for noncommercial passenger vehicles.

The proposals being considered put fee caps on certain vehicles — noncommercial passenger vehicles entering the district, for instance, would not be tolled more than once per day. Other allowances may be considered for vehicles that have already paid tolls that same day on bridges and tunnels.

Some of the scenarios examined would exempt taxis, but not for-hire vehicles like Uber and Lyft rides.

Why does New York want these tolls?

The city wants to tamp down on vehicle traffic, combat pollution and look for new ways to pay for public transit.

By charging a fee to drive into Manhattan’s busiest neighborhoods, officials hope to discourage cars from jamming up the borough’s streets. Those who do enter will help pay for transit upgrades.

Ultimately, experts say this would make getting around New York more equitable by levying a convenience fee on those who can, at least in theory, afford it to help those with less — people who rely on the bus and subway network tend to be people with lower incomes.

Why does the transit system need more money?

People wait for the subway in Times Square in New York, N.Y. on July 24, 2022.Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

The M.T.A. is on the edge of a financial crisis because the coronavirus pandemic has sapped subway and bus ridership, strained the system’s budget and underscored its overreliance on fares.

The authority expects to face a $2.5 billion deficit in 2025, which amounts to 12 percent of the operating budget. An infusion of federal aid that has propped up the system during the pandemic will have dried up by then, and congestion pricing is one way the M.T.A. can generate new sources of revenue.

The money raised through congestion pricing would be used for infrastructure upgrades, like building new platform barriers or elevators. The program is expected to help fund $15 billion to improve subway, bus and commuter rail systems.

Who benefits?

Supporters of the plan say having fewer vehicles on the road would improve the region’s air quality, reduce travel times and help New York’s traffic-choked bus network, which is used primarily by low-income people who do not have cars and live far from the subway.

The money raised for the M.T.A. would pay for a more robust transit network and make it easier and faster for its riders to get around.

Other cities have had success with congestion pricing programs. According to research prepared for the U.S. Department of Transportation, London, Singapore and Stockholm all experienced less traffic after setting up their own tolls.

Who opposes the project?

Politicians outside Manhattan have denounced the plan because of fears it could place an unfair burden on people from other boroughs and around the region who need to travel there.

Staten Island Republican Rep. Nicole Malliotakis and New Jersey Democrat Rep. Josh Gottheimer issued a statement this week calling the proposal “absurd” and vowing to introduce legislation that would call for a federal audit of the M.T.A.

“Stop treating New Yorkers and American taxpayers like ATMs,” Ms. Malliotakis said in the statement. “Enough is enough.”

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