New York City’s Rocky Road to Congestion Pricing

Renée Darline Roden | Tuesday, May 4, 2021


(Photo/Benjamin Jopen)

New York City is on the verge of becoming the first in the United States to implement congestion pricing – a charge on cars entering high-traffic areas. The goal? To reduce air pollution and keep traffic flowing smoothly. But the city’s plan, like its traffic, has gotten stuck in its fair share of jams. Renée Roden has the story on the long road to congestion pricing in New York City.

RODEN: New York City has been test-driving plans for congestion pricing for a while. Back in 1969, Mayor John Lindsay called for tolls to clean up the city’s air and relieve congestion. It was an unpopular plan: 

LINDSAY:  I am requesting the governor and Mr Ronan to indicate whether they will support a commitment by the city to impose tolls on the East River bridges if thesefeasibility studies prove favorable. The revenue from this source may be two to four years away.

RODEN: That was 62 years ago. And still the revenue that the MTA hoped congestion pricing would bring – $15 billion in today’s dollars – isn’t here yet. Sam Schwartz was a traffic engineer working with Mayor Lindsay at the time. And a champion for congestion pricing.

SCHWARTZ: And we started working on tolls on the East and the Harlem river bridges back in the early 1970s.

RODEN: The governor signed off on the tolls in 1973 – right as Mayor Lindsay’s successor, Abraham Beame, took over. But Brooklyn politicians who would have to pay to drive into Manhattan pressured Beame to kill the plan.

When Beame refused to implement the tolls, an environmental group sued. And the Supreme Court demanded the city implement the bridge charge by 1977. But that year, two New York congressmen passed legislation that voided the court order. Still, Schwartz kept at it.

SCHWARTZ: I tried again in 1980 as a city official, was promptly sued by the automobile club, the garage board of trade, and the city lost the lawsuit.

RODEN: The majority of bridges into Manhattan still have no tolls. In the meantime, the city met federal air quality standards. Its pollution problem improved. Congestion pricing took a backseat.

Finally, 20 years later, a congestion charge happened – just not in New York. 

SCHWARTZ: I was so jealous when London beat us as the first western city.

RODEN: The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, ran on a congestion charge during his campaign. Despite political pushback, he kicked off the plan three years later. 

LIVINGSTONE: There’s no alternative. No. One’s come up with a painless way of doing this. No one has done this. Our tragedy is that we don’t have a plan B.

RODEN: New York took note. And took action. But slowly – like its traffic. Over the next decade, experts noticed fewer cars on the road, but more rideshares like Ubers and Lyfts. Those rideshares make a lot of stops. So even with fewer cars, traffic slowed down and congestion ramped up. 

Finally, two years ago, New York State passed the Traffic Mobility Act. It gave the city the green light on congestion pricing – as long as the Federal Department of Transportation signed off. Which it didn’t. Governor Cuomo blamed the president for antagonizing a blue state. David Jones is on the MTA’s board:

JONES: The Trump administration was unwilling to move forward with giving the environmental okay. 

RODEN: The Biden administration, though, has given the process the go-ahead. But Jones says even if the federal review goes quickly, there will still be lots of local challenges.

JONES: That’s all going to be worked out like making sausages, it’s going to be a political process that has to go on.

RODEN: Some details are clear – the congestion zone will be Manhattan’s city streets, south of 61st Street. But most are still up for consideration. Sam Schwartz says this gridlock looks familiar. 

SCHWARTZ: As I told my colleagues who have been fighting along with me, I don’t break out the champagne until the first toll is paid. 

RODEN: The 2019 legislation called for the formation of a review board to establish details — like exact toll prices and exemptions. Those details were due six months ago. The MTA has yet to say when the board will form.

Renée Roden, Columbia Radio News

Credits:

  • Archival tape Courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives and WNYC Archives Collection.
  • Additional thanks to BBC Sound Effects Archives.

A version of this story originally aired on Uptown Radio.


This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.