Over a decade ago, state and local leaders in New York had a good idea: Charge cars driving into lower Manhattan, to improve the environment, reduce traffic, and get more funding for mass transit. It seemed pretty straightforward, almost obvious. Except that it wasn’t.
It says everything you need to know about New York politics that the person who is most responsible for scuttling the plan then is now in federal lock-up. But years pass, and things change, and different people get elected to positions of power, which is how it came to be that, in 2019, the state adopted a new budget, this time with a new version of congestion pricing.
It was finally happening! Except it still needed some federal approvals and Donald Trump was president at the time. Donald Trump, you’ll recall, was a bad president, and the approvals never came, and then the pandemic happened and we all had bigger things to worry about and also Donald Trump and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo couldn’t get along.
Now, it is 2021, and we have neither Trump nor Cuomo to kick around anymore and, interestingly, it looks like congestion pricing is finally moving forward for real. The relevant agencies said on Friday that they had federal approval to kick off 16 months of environmental review and public outreach, which made a lot of people extremely mad, because it doesn’t take 16 months to determine that fewer cars on the streets improves the environment.
Still, this is apparently federal law, and the review must happen, but thanks to broad political consensus, including from likely mayor-to-be Eric Adams, the smart money is on congestion pricing eventually going forward despite the wait, because traffic is real bad in Manhattan and the MTA, which runs the subway, needs money.
And this isn’t, you know, California, where the freeways are free. There’s nothing states and cities in the Northeast love doing more than slapping tolls on roads and bridges; this will just be another line item on the E-ZPass bill, if you are fortunate enough to own a car and even an E-ZPass.
As for that price: It hasn’t been determined yet, but the program is supposed to bring in $1 billion annually. One estimate has it at $12 to $14 per car, which is more or less what it costs to enter New York City via the Hudson River crossings, an amount which no one ever questions or thinks twice about.
That is, inevitably what will happen to the congestion pricing zone, too. The system will be the first of its kind in the U.S., though they have similar systems in London and Stockholm, where officials report that air quality has gone up, traffic has gone down, and millions have been generated for public transit. It’s almost like this was a good idea from the beginning.