Some scenarios proposed by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority would increase tolls by $23 per day for commuters crossing the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey. All of the proposed options would divert more truck traffic to the Bronx, creating potential political hurdles as New York officials look to get the project over the finish line.
If implemented, New York would finally achieve a decades-long push to implement the nation’s first congestion pricing plan, following in the footsteps of major European cities such as London and Stockholm. It would generate much-needed revenue for the MTA, which is projecting a $2.6 billion operating deficit in 2025 due to a nationwide decline in public transit use during the pandemic. And it will successfully curb congestion in New York City’s financial hub, as traffic levels are poised to surpass record highs seen in 2019.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t sore spots.
“I am a supporter of congestion pricing in principle. That said, any plan that threatens to intensify diesel truck traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway raises serious concerns about public health and racial equity. Richie Torres (DN.Y.), whose district includes the South Bronx, said in a statement. “My office and I are carefully reviewing the MTA’s proposal for environmental impact in the South Bronx.”
While the Murphy administration has so far been keeping tight-lipped on the new report, Hochul’s ally across the Hudson River has made clear its willingness to go “nuclear” on behalf of New Jersey drivers, once referring to how he could use his influence to get traction. Work at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Hochul wants to give Murphy a little earful as the two are still hammering out deals on the proposed expansion and reconstruction of Penn Station in midtown Manhattan.
“While the environmental assessment is under review by New Jersey state agencies and comments will be submitted where necessary and appropriate, the Murphy administration does not support double taxation of New Jerseyans that provides no direct relief to our state’s commuters,” Murphy spokeswoman Bailey Lawrence said in an email.
A long time coming
The release of the environmental review is years behind schedule due to various delays at the federal level.
The MTA waited more than a year to hear from federal officials about the type of review it should conduct to implement congestion pricing; Transportation officials have blamed New York state’s sour relationship with the Trump administration.
Federal approval is required because the project involves placing tolls on federally funded highways.
Last year, the Biden administration said the MTA was clear to move forward with a 16-month environmental assessment, a timeline advocates and some city officials said was too slow. The assessment later faced additional holdups, the MTA said, due to technical questions posed by the Federal Highway Administration.
Now that the document has been released, MTA officials are significantly closer to getting final approval from the federal government, which would give them the green light to install toll cameras in and out of Manhattan. Top transport officials hope the system will be up and running by the end of 2023.
Findings of the report
The environmental review assesses seven different tolling scenarios, each with different combinations of potential rebates, crossing credits and exemptions. Fares range from $9 to $23 for passenger vehicles and between $12 and $82 for trucks. Some states contemplate exemptions for taxis, but some limit the number of times certain vehicles can be charged in a single day. There are also options to have the MTA’s own buses pay the toll, effectively causing the agency to pay for itself.
It is above the existing tolls for the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels.
The report found that the project would achieve its main objective of reducing congestion in central Manhattan by 20 percent for personal vehicles and 80 percent for trucks. According to the report, higher toll prices will lead to a steep decline in traffic.
Only one of the proposed scenarios failed to generate $1 billion in annual revenue for the MTA’s capital plan. A senior MTA official said it was added to show how the combination of low toll prices and exemptions will make it difficult for the system to meet its mandate under state law to generate $15 billion for the agency’s $54 billion capital plan.
“More than half of New Yorkers commute to work by public transit, and commuting to Manhattan’s central business district is overwhelmingly by transit,” said Danny Pearlstein, director of policy and communications for the Riders Alliance, a public transit advocacy group. “Congestion pricing is going to be a win-win-win for transit riders, drivers, and everyone who breathes in this city, and we can’t see it anytime soon.
The review found that the per-congestion pricing scenario would lead to more truck traffic on the Cross-Bronx Expressway and the RFK Bridge as drivers look to avoid the new tolling structure. The option to generate the least amount of new truck traffic in the Bronx would be to charge a single toll for each vehicle class with a toll cap for certain vehicle types. Most scenarios document an increase in truck traffic on I-95 in Bergen County, NJ.
In response to those findings, the MTA said it would expand its air quality monitoring and said it was converting its fleet to zero-emission buses and prioritizing new bus lanes in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx.
“There’s no way we’re adding a lot of trucks to these Bronx highways,” said Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the fiscally conservative Manhattan Institute, who has expressed support for pursuing congestion pricing.
‘You Can’t Tax New Jersey Drivers’
The tolling structure also poses some challenges to appease New Jersey politicians.
Murphy wants the MTA to take care of drivers on the George Washington Bridge by giving them the same credits New York can give drivers entering Manhattan through the Holland and Lincoln tunnels.
But in a scenario where the MTA does what Murphy asked, the total cost to New Jersey drivers would be higher than in scenarios where no one gets a discount.
In the MTA’s “basic plan,” everyone would pay $9 to get into the central business district.
But in the context of looking at the discounts — the MTA calls them “crossing credits” — for all bridge and tunnel drivers, the toll would be $23, plus a discount of up to $13.10. That means the new toll for New Jersey commuters will be $9.90 — 90 cents more than in the no-rebate scenario.
The math seems like an easy compromise, since getting what Murphy wants would cost New Jersey commuters more than if they all paid the same new toll. And, of course, anyone who doesn’t cross a bridge or tunnel, including many New Yorkers, would pay $14 more under the original plan. The scenario makes it difficult to see how New Jersey could favor a crossing credit plan that would mean New Yorkers pay even more.
MTA officials said the project is good for the area.
“The value of congestion pricing is clear: less congestion, less pollution and more reliable mass transit for a greater number of commuters, in New Jersey, who take trains and buses into Manhattan,” MTA spokesman Tim Minton said in a statement. This is a victory for the entire region, which cannot be hidden by grand politicians.
Other New Jersey politicians, especially Rep. Josh Gottheimer (DN.J.), has taken a hard line against any type of increase on New Jersey drivers. He is also urging New Jersey businesses to open new offices in the state so New Jerseyans can avoid working in New York offices. While that could certainly cut congestion, which is the whole point of the MTA’s new tolling plan, it could hurt the city’s tax base and economy, which is still recovering from the pandemic.
“If they want to tax people in Mississippi or Wyoming or Kansas, I don’t care. But you can’t tax New Jersey drivers,” Gottheimer, whose district includes commuter-heavy Bergen County, said in an interview.
A regional planning association that backs congestion pricing has warned of a congestion pricing scheme that encourages toll shopping. Some MTA scenarios consider offering discounts to all tunnel passengers but not all bridge passengers, which could increase congestion. Already overloaded bottlenecks like the Holland Tunnel.
The RPA points out that most New Jersey commuters to Manhattan are already taking public transit, not driving. Those passengers will benefit from improved air quality in the region and increased investment from the MTA once they reach New York. But the new revenue from tolls won’t help fund NJ Transit, which faces huge deficits in the coming years and is vital to getting passengers into Manhattan in the first place.
Tiffany-Ann Taylor, the association’s vice president for transit, said she hopes the MTA will adapt if something doesn’t work out after the tariffs are imposed.
“I understand wanting to get it as right as possible the first time, but I think there will be room to make adjustments after the first day happens,” he said.