What Elected Officials Are Saying About Congestion Pricing

Putting a price on driving into Manhattan is likely to be a hot issue through the rest of the New York legislative session, and perhaps longer. RPA has been busy meeting with elected officials, civic groups, and business leaders throughout the region on the topic. From these discussions, it’s clear that transit advocates have an uphill, but not insurmountable, battle ahead.


Here are some of the concerns we’ve heard and some points to help move the conversation forward:

1)  Everyone agrees the subways and buses are a mess and something must be done, but there is little agreement on solutions. The millionaires tax, for example, comes up as an alternative to congestion pricing. Many support such a tax, but it’s unfortunately DOA in Albany. Plus, it doesn’t produce the congestion reduction benefits of a cordon toll.  

2)  The daily experience with the transit system is miserable, whether it is because of delayed buses, overcrowded subways, lack of elevators in stations, or poor communication, but elected officials have heard little support for congestion pricing. New Yorkers take to Twitter to complain about transit delays, but they are much less likely to call or email their local elected officials. This will have to change if congestion pricing is going to succeed.

3) Distrust of the MTA is running high, and most elected officials are wary of giving the agency more resources. A fair point, and one shared by many civic groups. Thankfully, the MTA’s new leaders are committed to reform, and there are a variety of ways to address high construction costs and implement improvements quicker and at lower cost.

3)  Many have read the FixNYC panel report, but have lots of questions about the details of how it would be implemented. These questions include what would happen right outside the cordon zone to reduce local congestion and whether there would be a subsidy for those attending medical appointments in the cordon zone. Many of these specific concerns are easily addressed. For example, a cordon toll would reduce traffic in some neighborhoods right outside the cordon zone like Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City. Today these neighborhoods suffer disproportionately from drivers passing through on their way to the free East River Bridges to avoid paying tolls on other crossings. In other neighborhoods residential parking permits would prevent drivers from leaving their cars on the edges (not that there is much curbside parking available in most neighborhoods near Manhattan these days anyway). And there is no reason why those attending medical appointments can’t receive a validation for the fee, similar to how you get free parking at a doctor’s office in the suburbs.

4)  A retail education effort is sorely needed. Like most New Yorkers, most elected leaders aren’t policy wonks, and they are very busy. They don’t know statistics that could inform the debate (e.g. more than half of NYC households don’t even own cars, or that 80% of their constituents ride public transit to work). A variety of resources are compiled below.

5)  Congestion is an issue everywhere, not just Manhattan. Many elected officials want more attention paid to the congestion in their outer borough districts, not just Manhattan. Some of this can be addressed with improvements to local transit, and it might be worth DOT expanding it’s tools for congestion hot spots in the outer boroughs.

6)  The benefits of congestion pricing haven’t been well spelled out. “What would new revenue pay for?” is a big question many elected and advocates are asking. Some ideas for possible bus improvements, fare reductions, and new service are outlined in the Move NY proposal and RPA’s previous research.

7)  Some officials don’t believe Census numbers. They are indeed concerns that the Census undercounts lower income communities, communities of color, and immigrants. RPA supports efforts to improve Census data collection, and we don’t think the numbers are perfect, but we also know the Census are the best numbers we have. The data also indicates that those on transit are likely to be undercounted, not car drivers, who tend to have higher household incomes.  

8) It’s emotional. If pricing advocates are going to win, they are going to have to do a better job connecting the daily lives of New Yorkers with the benefits of a congestion pricing program. Asking people to pay for something that is currently free is difficult for people to swallow, and it’s require lots of patience from all sides in coming months.   


Additional resources:


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