NYC could become first US city with London-style congestion charge


New York City skyline (by Flickr user AngMoKio)

New York City skyline (by Flickr user AngMoKio)

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Some drivers in one specific part of New York City could have to pay new charges in a pay-to-drive plan that would charge them $11.52 to enter the busiest parts of Manhattan.

Under the congestion-charge plan, according to The New York Times last Thursday, the "Fix NYC" task force working for New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed levying a charge on all vehicles that enter the island of Manhattan at any point south of 60th Street.

Past congestion charge plans have failed in the state legislature, whose members historically had little sympathy for New York City and were susceptible to complaints of unfairness by city residents without access to mass transit.

A key difference in the latest proposal might push it over the top: Drivers would not have to pay the charge if they entered the northern part of Manhattan via two traditionally free East River bridges, as long as they avoided the congestion zone.

The proposal would hit taxi and ride-sharing drivers in particular, and truck drivers as well. Taxi and for-hire drivers could see surcharges of $2 to $5 on each ride within or into the congestion zone, and trucks would be hit with a $25.34 charge for entering it.

Critically, the plan suggests the fees would not be levied until above- and below-ground mass transit is repaired—though it appears to provide no funding for that purpose.

New York City subway. Photo by Flickr user James Willamor.

New York City subway. Photo by Flickr user James Willamor.

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While Governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency for New York City's subway system last June, his priorities for cosmetic station upgrades fail to address century-old infrastructure or add any new capacity.

Both are needed to alleviate delays, reduce breakdowns, or simply cope with 5.7 million subway riders per day, close to the highest ridership the system has seen since all-time peaks in the 1940s and 1950s.

The finer details of the congestion charge are not available yet, but preliminary information made its way to the state's legislature last Friday.

As London's pioneering congestion charge proved, such a plan solves two problems: it cuts the number of vehicles on the most congested streets, which speeds buses used by everyone else, and it redistributes non-essential trips to other parts of the day. The average speed of a vehicle in Manhattan sank to 4.7 mph last year, down from 6.5 mph in 2013.

The city's population rose to 8.5 million from 8.1 million in 2010, and tens of thousands of new Uber and Lyft vehicles now clog city streets as well. Last year, for-hire drivers part of Lyft, Uber, and other services provided 470,000 rides in NYC, even as medallion taxi usage has plummeted. 

The last effort to install a congestion charge came in 2008 under Mayor Mike Bloomberg. That proposal died in the state assembly when legislators voted it down. This time, it may offer a solution to the dire need for new revenue to invest in mass transit as much as any desire to help city traffic.

Three Ford taxi cabs in New York City: Crown Victoria, C-Max Hybrid, and Escape Hybrid

Three Ford taxi cabs in New York City: Crown Victoria, C-Max Hybrid, and Escape Hybrid

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Starting under Governor George Pataki, the state of New York slashed its historic contributions to the capital budgets of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, forcing the MTA to borrow tens of billions of dollars for its capital plan to keep the system running and work toward a state of good repair.

Almost one-quarter of the MTA's total income now goes simply to debt service for those loans, and no other revenue sources appear remotely feasible.

Traffic aside, the congestion charge may represent the least unpalatable way to keep the city's subways from decaying back toward their 1970s nadir.

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