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Howard Yaruss

May 01, 2024

Congestion pricing has to win public backing

Congestion pricing has to win public backing

Years of political maneuvering, legislation, environmental reviews, community forums, expert analysis and planning sessions have finally brought us to a point where congestion pricing is on the brink of being implemented. Many view the resolution of the inevitable lawsuits that seem to follow almost anything the government does as the final hurdle for charging $15 to drive in Manhattan below 61st Street.

But the ultimate hurdle to the successful implementation of congestion pricing, or any innovative public policy for that matter, is acceptance by the public it purports to serve. Although many politicians are on board, most of them reluctantly and with little enthusiasm, and a few businesses and organizations have endorsed the plan, there is no groundswell of support from New Yorkers. A Quinnipac University poll found that New York City voters oppose congestion pricing by a margin of 54 to 41. A Siena College/Newsday poll of Long Islanders found that more than 70% opposed congestion pricing. Many see this as a cash grab from a political system that ignores average people and caters to wealthy donors who would happily pay a significant fee to shave a few minutes off car trips around the city. If many see a program as a heavy-handed rip-off by a government that ignores most New Yorkers, that does not bode well for its survival.

Advocates for congestion pricing respond that the charge will ultimately provide funding for mass transit capital projects, cleaner air and less traffic. New Yorkers, however, are a skeptical group and many are not convinced that these benefits will ever materialize. MTA capital projects are often long delayed, massively over budget, and, in many cases, poorly executed. Traffic and pollution may improve in the congestion zone, but could get worse in the adjoining neighborhoods. Furthermore, the uncertainty around how all of this will affect parking, the third rail of non-rail transportation, is enough to turn even the most open-minded New Yorkers against this program.

A simple solution would be to lower the subway fare on the same day the congestion pricing charge begins.

On day one of congestion pricing, the only thing New Yorkers are sure they will see is more fees for driving and no change in subway service. The promise of some potential benefits in the future is no match for having to shell out $15 in the present. The MTA needs to provide an immediate, tangible benefit to compensate for the fee.

A simple solution would be to lower the subway, bus and commuter rail fares on the same day the congestion pricing charge begins. If approximately half of the expected $1 billion in revenue from the congestion charge were used to reduce fares, the city could announce an unprecedented 10% reduction in all subway and bus fares, and a commitment to not increase them for the foreseeable future. 

Alternatively, half of the revenue would allow the city to offer totally free mass transit on Sundays. The several million people who ride New York City’s mass transit every day might feel very differently about congestion pricing if this were done. Funds for capital projects would be halved, but that would still leave a lot more funding than if the program failed.

New York’s leaders are making a grave mistake by not setting up congestion pricing for success.

Even with the carrot of immediately reduced mass transit fares and other benefits on the horizon, the program’s viability would be far from assured because it relies on cameras to record the license plates of vehicles that enter the congestion zone for the purpose of billing the registered owner. Although congestion pricing is at least months away, we have already seen a massive increase in fake, obscured or simply absent license plates. These currently evade speed detection cameras and will soon evade the congestion pricing program’s cameras. A recent report by New York City Comptroller Brad Lander shows a 5,356% increase (that is not a typo) in unbillable speed camera charges in the last four and a half years due to no license plates or license plate rejections. The report further notes that in 2023, the City lost an estimated $108 million to this problem, almost 50% of the entire revenue from the program just one year earlier.

The difficulty of stopping drivers in real-time with plates that are not in a national database of legitimate plates hinders enforcement. Once the substantial new congestion charges are implemented, we can expect this type of evasion to soar. Like fare-beating, the more people see others get away with evading the toll, the more likely they are to evade the toll as well. Unlike fare-beating, unidentified vehicles can be many miles away by the time a violation is detected and enforcement action can be taken. If the NYPD does not deploy new methods to seek out these ghost vehicles and take them off the road, the promised benefits can never be delivered.

Even the best public policies need to be sold to the public. New York’s leaders are making a grave mistake by not setting up congestion pricing for success. If they do not provide the carrot of immediate, tangible benefits and the stick of efficient, proactive enforcement, congestion pricing may not gain the wide public acceptance it needs to clear its final hurdle.