Hearings on congestion pricing scheduled, issue has been a thorny one for years
After years of proposals and arguments pro and con, the MTA and the city and state Departments of Transportation have announced that they will hold 13 virtual meetings in September and October on the Central Business District Tolling Program — also known as congestion pricing.
Meetings that would focus on the plan’s impact for Brooklyn, as well as for the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island, are scheduled to be held on Thursday, Sept. 23, from 10 a.m. to noon, and on Thursday, Sept. 30, from 6 to 8 p.m.
Congestion pricing for New York City was approved in the $175 billion 2020 budget hashed out by the state legislature and then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
For the purposes of the proposed program, the “Central Business District” would be anything south of 60th Street in Manhattan, with the exception of the FDR Drive, the West Side Highway, the Battery Park Underpass and the road leading to the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel.
If the plan is approved by the Federal Highway Administration, vehicles that enter or remain in the Central Business District would be tolled using an E-Z Pass or by mail. Cameras and sensors would be mounted at the four East River bridges and elsewhere.
Money collected from these tolls would help to fund the MTA. The MTA web page dealing with the program is vague as to how it would affect buses, delivery trucks and taxicabs.
“Congestion pricing will ease traffic, protect our environment, and deliver the funding our public transit system needs to keep our city moving,” said Hank Gutman, New York City Transportation Commissioner, himself a Brooklynite. “As we emerge from this pandemic, we owe it to our fellow New Yorkers to get this project done as quickly as possible.”
Not everyone agrees with him, however. Congestion pricing has been a subject for debate in Brooklyn for more than 20 years.
In February 2020, then-Assemblymember and current U.S. Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, who in both positions has represented a joint Brooklyn-Staten Island district, told the Eagle that she opposes any congestion pricing plan unless a toll credit for Staten Island residents who drive over the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge is included. Otherwise, said Malliotakis, a Republican, they would be forced to pay two tolls.
However, at the same time, State Sen. Andrew Gounardes (D-Southern Brooklyn), who voted in favor of a congestion pricing bill in Albany, said he disagreed with Malliotakis’ attempt to kill it. “Why would anyone advocate to starve the MTA of funding which will prevent making improvements to the reliability and accessibility of the system?” Gounardes told the Eagle via a text message.
At a Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce meeting in February 2019, Peter Petino, president of Active Transport Messenger Service on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, told the Eagle that congestion pricing fees would hurt his business, since the company’s vans make deliveries from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
“We drive emergency pipes that need to be delivered to construction sites; we deliver to the boutique manufacturers. They need templates, they need supplies, they have to put together their models, and we rush it into the city. Will it hurt me? Yes. Will it hurt the people doing all this yes. Will it hurt the plumber that’s trying to get the business in Manhattan? Yes. The handyman? Yes,” he said.
On the other hand, in 2018, Gounardes as well as incoming Brooklyn State Senators Zellnor Myrie (Crown Heights-Park Slope-Sunset Park) and Julia Salazar (Bushwick-Williamsburg) were among a group of six that issued a joint statement on Wednesday calling for congestion pricing legislation.
“We support a comprehensive, robust, fair and sustainable funding plan for the MTA that includes congestion pricing at its core. Congestion pricing has the unique potential of raising over a billion dollars each year dedicated to transit. Without it we will not achieve the revenue necessary to reach those goals,” the statement reads in part.
Around the same time, some Brooklyn Heights residents favored congestion pricing because they believed it would reduce traffic on the fragile “cantilevered” section of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and slow down its deterioration.
In October 2018, Danny Pearlstein of the Riders Alliance said that congestion pricing would benefit Brooklyn express bus riders by reducing Manhattan traffic. “Queens and Brooklyn express bus riders pay $6.50 each way to slog through traffic to and from neighborhoods far from subway stations. Many spend over 15 hours a week in transit. To make ends meet, they have to get up earlier and come home later than the rest of us,” he told the Eagle.
Regardless, the issue is coming up now because the MTA and the two DOTs have received approval from the Federal Highway Administration on a 16-month schedule for the Environmental Assessment and permission to move forward with the public outreach portion of the project.
“This is the first congestion pricing program in the United States, and it’s important that the public have an opportunity to learn about the proposal and to be able to weigh in,” said Janno Lieber, acting MTA Chair & CEO. “We are committed to getting this project done quickly while providing the public real transparency throughout the process.”
The Central Business District Tolling Program was authorized by the state in April 2019 and modeled on urban congestion pricing programs around the world to reduce traffic congestion and raise needed revenue to improve public transportation.
An earlier congestion pricing plan was put forward by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city in 2008, but failed to pass in Albany. At that time, some residents of brownstone Brooklyn areas objected to the plan because they feared that residents of Sheepshead Bay, Flatlands and other outlying areas would drive to their neighborhoods, park there and take the subway, thus taking up valuable parking space.