Last week, Governor Cuomo and the NY State Legislature agreed to establish the nation’s first ever congestion pricing program. The program’s objective is to reduce traffic on New York City streets, raise funds for the needs of the City’s cash-starved transit system and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that endanger our environment and impact our health.
The program set a few big picture objectives in place:
- The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and New York City will levy tolls on traffic that enters Manhattan areas south of 60th Street and inside FDR Drive and the West Side Highway.
- Congestion Pricing could generate $1 billion a year, which the City could bond up against for $15 billion; protect congestion pricing revenue for transit investments; and allocate revenues between the NYC subway, the Long Island Railroad, and Metro-North improvements (both parts of the MTA).
Many other details, though, remain to be worked out, such as what tolls will actually be, how they will vary by time of day and congestion levels, and what exemptions there might be and for whom. Working out these details will be the responsibility of a six-person traffic mobility panel that will be appointed by the Governor of New York and the Mayor of New York City. The panel will ultimately make recommendations to the MTA. For a deep dive on the congestion pricing program’s details, take a look at our co-penned NYC Streetsblog article that ran this weekend.
For many New Jerseyans there’s a very simple question: “how will this affect me?”
One view comes from New Jersey’s Governor Phil Murphy, who in recent days has been broadcasting his concern that congestion pricing in New York will be an excessive burden on New Jerseyans, both those who drive to Manhattan and those who will be riding increasingly crowded transit services. The Governor has also written a letter, as reported by NJ.com, to New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo documenting his concerns.
Another view comes from developer Carl Goldberg, who is quoted in an NJBIZ article stating his support for New York’s congestion pricing program “from an environmental perspective as well as alleviating some congestion in the Manhattan business district.”
The Governor is right that New Jerseyans could be affected, though how many and how impacted won’t be clear exactly how until the traffic mobility panel issues, and a decision is made about, detailed implementation recommendations.
Until that time, here are some thoughts to keep in mind.
- The vast majority of Manhattan-bound Garden State commuters take public transit and will benefit from congestion charges. As Table 1 below shows, only one out of five tunnel commuters into Manhattan is a driver. In total, that’s about 250,000 auto trips per day compared to about 930,000 trips by transit, and only a fraction of these auto trips actually end up in the congestion pricing zone. An additional 20,000 drivers cross the GW Bridge eastbound each weekday and conclude their trips in the congestion pricing zone.
- For New Jerseyans who drive into Manhattan’s tolled zone, congestion will bring a service quality payoff: reduced congestion. In recent years, driving on Manhattan streets has become slower and slower. Congestion pricing is expected to make driving a more reliable experience.
- It’s possible that some New Jersey drivers will be exempted from paying a toll to enter the congestion pricing zone, making their benefit all the greater. While it wasn’t enacted in the law’s final language, it was an expectation of many that drivers who pay tolls to use the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels should not have to pay an additional congestion charge to access the congestion pricing zone. The traffic mobility panel will make a final recommendation about these drivers to Governor Cuomo for his decision. The panel will make a similar recommendation about drivers who access the congestion toll zone via the George Washington Bridge.
- New Jersey Transit, like New York MTA, is suffering the effects of years of neglect and underinvestment. Governor Murphy is right that a successful congestion pricing program in New York could encourage more travel on an already stressed NJ Transit bus and rail system.
Rather than looking to NY officials for toll exemptions for drivers – the opposite of a climate-sensitive policy – or revenue carve-outs for NJ projects, it may be time for New Jerseyans to take inspiration from New York’s example and to consider carbon pricing, vehicle miles of travel fees, or other mechanisms to generate badly needed transit investment funds and to roll back the transportation sector’s ever-growing share of climate impact.
Points to Pay Attention to
If the traffic mobility panel and Governor Cuomo exempt Holland and Lincoln Tunnel drivers from congestion charges — and if GW Bridge users are not exempted — there may be an incentive for drivers who currently use the GW Bridge to “toll shop” on the New Jersey side by traveling south to the Lincoln or Holland Tunnels to avoid this additional charge. How big an incentive they will have is not clear at this time, because the cordon charge at 60th Street has not yet been set. Of course, whatever that cordon charge is will be offset by the roundtrip cost of traveling south on the NJ Turnpike to the Lincoln or Holland Tunnels.
If there is a big difference between the cordon charge and the NJ Turnpike toll, an increase in vehicle travel at the Lincoln Tunnel could result. On the BQE in Brooklyn, 25 percent of the traffic along the cantilever section is currently bypassing the Battery Tunnel, which has a toll, for a free bridge crossing further north. If New Jersey drivers were to similarly bypass the GW Bridge for the tunnels, Manhattan-bound buses and car drivers could see a significant increase in congestion.