Forget for a moment the unfortunate name, which conjures up unpleasant images of stuffed noses and clogged throats, of traffic-filled streets and high price tags.
Congestion pricing is not the best moniker, but the concept — a better system of tolls, fees and traffic reduction strategies — is the right way to move the region forward.
In reality, New York has a lot of catching up to do. Singapore instituted a form of congestion pricing in 1975. Oslo followed in the 1980s, London in 2003 and Stockholm a few years later. And cashless electronic tolling, without cumbersome booths for cash collection, has been around for decades, but has finally arrived here.
Transportation advocates and elected officials have tried to change how New York manages traffic. In the 1990s, Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an advocacy group, pushed such efforts. But nothing has come of the idea that financial incentives can improve driving patterns. Until, perhaps, now.
The combination of a deteriorating subway system, the so-called “summer of hell” on the Long Island Rail Road and seemingly endless traffic on aging roads and bridges could make it harder to reject a concept that could pour money into transportation coffers and alleviate excruciating bottlenecks.
If done right, congestion pricing could reduce traffic in the most crowded parts of New York City. It could create a dedicated revenue stream to upgrade roads, bridges and mass transit, especially where it is lacking. More fundamentally, it could influence behavior and improve our day-to-day comings and goings, our quality of life and our world.
If that seems too pie in the sky, then think a bit more simply.
Imagine less traffic on the Long Island Expressway and Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and, especially, in Long Island City en route to the 59th Street Bridge. Imagine fewer trucks double-parked in midtown Manhattan. And imagine $1.5 billion in added annual revenue — three-quarters of which would flow to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for mass transit, the rest to roads and bridges.
But what would any of it mean in practice for residents of New York City and Long Island? And will a State Legislature unwilling to tackle most big issues finally tackle this one?
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo seems to want to make congestion pricing a priority. The timing is right. We’d like to think the urgency underlying the region’s transportation infrastructure problems will be enough to push the State Legislature to pay attention. But it’s unclear what congestion pricing means to any of our elected officials. All use the phrase without any detail.
Start with outlining the goals: funding to improve mass transit and roadways, faster and easier travel, and cleaner air — quality-of-life improvements for everyone who drives, walks, bikes or takes a train or bus.
Congestion pricing could include parts of both the well-regarded Move NY plan from transportation guru Sam Schwartz and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, and lessons from other places. With give and take on all sides, everyone could benefit. Some themes to think about:
- Bridge tolls: Adding tolls to now-free East River bridges — the 59th Street, Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges — could come with lower tolls elsewhere, including at the Throgs Neck, Whitestone, RFK and Verrazano crossings. It could change traffic patterns, influence choices and help suburban and outer-borough commuters.
- Central business district fees: Find the most congested midtown nucleus in Manhattan and establish a pricing system to enter it. The politics and nuances might be complicated, but such a system is essential.
- For-hire vehicle surcharge: All for-hire vehicles, including Uber, Lyft and others, would pass on to passengers the same MTA surcharge that city Taxi and Limousine Commission cars do. In exchange, they could be exempt from business district tolls.
- Single-occupancy tolls: Could the Long Island Expressway charge single- occupant vehicles for the privilege of using high-occupancy lanes? We know, it’s not popular. But if the state is serious about significantly improving the way we all travel, the idea is worth considering.
- Dynamic pricing: Tolls would be lower during off-peak and overnight hours, but higher during rush hour.
Any plan by any name is going to face plenty of red lights. Mayor Bill de Blasio opposes the concept, and outer-borough politicians have lashed out against East River bridge tolls. They’re wrong to be so adamant, self-serving, pandering and shortsighted.
Cuomo will have to negotiate the complex political landscape to produce the right plan and the right message. He should solicit the best ideas, craft a proposal and answer questions that will arise. Understand the economics, the effect on traffic, the potential drawbacks, and the impact on residents. With a smart, well-executed proposal, Cuomo can get buy-in from the suburbs and the city alike, but he’ll need the political will to push past roadblocks.
Political traffic is worth fighting to establish clear lanes ahead.