Ferdinando Scianna / Magnum Photos

Beware of Potholes

Sam Schwartz

May 01, 2024

Here’s where congestion pricing could go wrong and how to stop it

Here’s where congestion pricing could go wrong and how to stop it

The MTA, after five years of study, numerous public meetings and 4,000 pages of an Environmental Assessment document, is finally poised to implement congestion pricing — a plan to reduce traffic by charging cars to enter the central business district. Those who are protesting the plan by insisting that the review was inadequate should remember: Environmental studies that widen highways, take private property and displace thousands are typically just a few hundred pages long

The MTA got the zone right: Manhattan’s Central Business District (CBD) is defined as 60th Street and South, river to river. There are more than 200 transit options to the CBD including 53 rail lines (subway + commuter), 127 buses, 10 ferries and one aerial tram, not to mention 15 Amtrak lines and numerous shuttles from airports and suburbs. The area has an average car speed of 7 mph, with Midtown clocking in at 5 mph — hence the need for congestion relief. The price of $15 is comparable to the round-trip bridge and tunnel tolls throughout the region, which also makes sense. And I’m glad they held firm on not issuing free passes to government officials, city employees and others, and stuck with the legislation granting exemptions and credits only to vehicles transporting disabled and low-income CBD residents. 

But no matter how many years and pages of study, some things will not go as planned. And many people in the city and the Tri-State region will do their part to game the system — it’s both human and New York nature. Here’s a rundown of what the MTA can expect:

1: “Ghost” and other plate shenanigans may proliferate. A decade or so ago, I attended a conference in Europe on their experience with congestion pricing. London, Stockholm, Milan and other cities were represented. I recall one city’s slide presentation depicting a passenger splayed across the trunk or “boot” of a car, blocking the license plate as the driver passed a checkpoint. While that may be a rare way to beat the system, New Yorkers have imaginatively figured out a plethora of means to thwart the license plate readers, even before congestion pricing. In January of this year, City Comptroller Brad Lander released a report showing that 22% of speed camera violations were not processable because 15% were “ghosts” and another 7% were defaced. Here’s a rundown of the shenanigans, all of which are illegal and many of which, under legislation passed last week, can result in fines of up to $500

a. Get a paper plate from out of state. There are unscrupulous dealers in New Jersey, Texas, Georgia and other states who will, for a fee, send you a paper plate. What really irks the city’s Finance Department is that in Jersey, even legitimate paper plates are stored on paper files, not computer files, making retrieving the info just not worth it.

b. eBay or other sites will sell you ‘real-looking’ plates that are impossible to track. I bought a disabled vet plate from Mississippi that expires in December 2024 for less than $20. Of course, it’s just for show!

Credit: Sam Schwartz. The author with his facsimile disabled veteran plate from Mississippi.

c. Plate covers and coating to block plate readers. Google produced over 12 million results when I plugged in this search. You will find covers and spray coatings that can supposedly “blind” the cameras. Of course, many do not work.

d. Electronic plate flippers. Yes, you can plunk down a C-note and get a device that can flip your legitimate plate with a bogus plate whenever you pass a detector. This is not just for James Bond anymore.

e. Bike racks that block plates. Would a biker really do something like this on purpose? But I’ve seen them dozens of times on the roads.

f. A black market for E-ZPass discounts or exemptions. Transponders issued to some low-income or disabled persons may find themselves in the cars of the well-to-do and able. Transit enforcers need to keep an eye out for too-clever-by-half workarounds.

g. Ever-more-creative lawbreaking. This includes: muddying and damaging plates to block letters and numbers, a remote-controlled “magnetic leaf” that adheres to your plate looking like an innocent happenstance, and numbers and letters that transform with markers (i.e. a “3” becomes an “8,” an F becomes an “E” etc.). Last, some scammers just go nude — no plates! 

Is the MTA really going to charge you $3.75 one minute and charge you $15 one minute later? Well, that’s how the plan is being described.

2: Traffic congestion might worsen after implementation. It sounds counterintuitive that with fewer cars entering the CBD, traffic speeds can worsen — but that’s what happened over the decade of 2010-2019. The total number of motor vehicles entering the CBD declined by nearly 40,000 daily (a decline of 5%) while speeds dropped by nearly 25%. Huh? Decades ago, as traffic commissioner, I found the closest correlation to vehicle speeds was the number of vehicles in motion in a zone, not the number of vehicles entering. The vehicles in motion right now in the CBD are mostly Ubers, Lyfts, taxis and other car services (known as for-hire-vehicles (FHVs)), which have soared in numbers since the advent of app-hailing in the 2000s. There was a cap on the number of FHVs imposed in 2018, but it was recently lifted by the city allowing an increase as long as the new vehicles are EVs. If we have too many FHVs, no matter their energy source, traffic speeds will drop. And don’t get me started on the mayor’s recent welcome to autonomous vehicle manufacturers to try out their wares on New York City streets.

3: Too much or too little revenue is collected. Despite all the ways people may try to beat the system, I think the MTA may have understated the revenue that could be generated. If the numbers come in higher than anticipated, what does it do then? Lower rates, invest more? Or I could be wrong, and too little revenue may be generated. That’s also problematic, because by law, the plan needs to produce sufficient revenue to finance $15 billion in bonds. If there are shortfalls, does that green light the MTA to raise rates?

4: Quantum-sized traffic and safety problems. I’m just showing off my physics degree now: Is the MTA really going to charge you $3.75 one minute and charge you $15 one minute later? Well, that’s how the plan is being described. At 8:59 a.m. on a Saturday, you’ll pay $3.75 to enter the zone, but a minute later, at 9 a.m., $15. Let’s say you’ve just entered the Ed Koch-Queensboro Bridge and it’s 8:56 a.m. You sprint across in two minutes just as the light at Second Ave. is turning red. Do you speed up and/or run the red light or patiently wait and pay the extra $11.25? Similarly, you’re at the foot of the bridge on a weeknight at 8:55 p.m. Do you just park at the foot of the bridge blocking traffic or crawl at 5 mph until the clock strikes 9 and tolls drop from $15 to $3.75? My hope is the MTA figures this out and drops and raises prices in, say, five-minute intervals to prevent such perverse economic effects.

5: The politics change. Imagine in 2025 a candidate for governor runs on a “Kill Congestion Pricing” platform in 2025 — a high likelihood. If he or she gets elected, the MTA board will change and so will the policy. I’m a veteran of governors and mayors okaying tolls only to have successors stop them in their tracks. Also, there is the likelihood that a change in the White House could bring back an old policy: no federal funds for toll facilities. That would stop the policy cold, since New York relies heavily on federal funds for its East River bridge rehabs.

6: The little old lady who drives her car to church once a week. Mark my words, through some time/space loop, a congestion charge will at some point be sent to an old woman or man living in small-town United States who has never been to the Big Apple. Having been in charge of the Parking Violations Bureau long ago and having been trained as a physicist, I know that science cannot describe what happens inside a black hole. Similarly, the black holes of bureaucracies will provide wonderful fodder for the tabloids looking to blast any initiative. Buckle your seatbelts.

If we have too many for-hire vehicles, no matter their energy source, traffic speeds will drop.

7: The protest that raised millions for the MTA. A quirk in the plan allows drivers to skirt the charge if they stay on Manhattan’s loop roads — the FDR-Battery Underpass and West Side Highway. So what do we do about demonstrators for aardvark rights who block the West Side Highway, forcing drivers to interior avenues and thereby triggering a congestion charge? Waive fees for everyone that day, or tell everyone they have to suck it up?

8: Will good old supply and demand economics offset the projected drop in traffic? If the plan is successful, garage operators will see a drop in demand — so they may lower prices to bring back the “on the financial fence” motorist, negating some of the deterrence and congestion relief effect of the tolls. 

9: The “construction made me do it” argument. Drivers on the upper level of the Ed Koch-Queensboro Bridge get a free pass since it dumps traffic north of the zone onto 62nd St., but, drivers on the lower level of the bridge can’t escape the charge even if they go north once in Manhattan (a policy I don't agree with). Contractors, with some frequency, close the upper level for maintenance or repairs, forcing drivers to the lower level, where they’ll have to fork up $15 for a trip that's usually free. There are other such quirks in the system, especially with the Brooklyn Bridge and the “free” peripheral roads (FDR Drive, West Side Highway and Battery Underpass). Look for a class-action suit on behalf of drivers affected.

10: The unknown unknowns. Thank you, former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for coining the term. I’m sure that a year from now, one will be able to develop a much longer list of the potholes that plague congestion pricing.

It’s easy to say “don’t worry about the risks,” but this is uncharted territory. Personally, despite all the pitfalls, potholes and unknowns ahead, I’m hopeful that once congestion pricing is implemented — and we really get a chance to kick the tires — it’ll find a way to work, albeit imperfectly, and, before too long, we will find something else to get upset about.