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Federal government weighs in, allows congestion pricing plan to move ahead

Vehicles arrive in Manhattan after crossing the Williamsburg

Vehicles arrive in Manhattan after crossing the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan. The state in 2019 approved a congestion pricing plan for lower Manhattan. Credit: Charles Eckert

A plan to introduce a first-in-the-nation congestion pricing program in lower Manhattan moved forward Tuesday, with the federal government weighing in on the project after more than a year of delay.

The proposal to charge for driving south of 60th Street requires an environmental review, and the Federal Highway Administration had to indicate what kind. But FHA officials had been mum on the project since state lawmakers approved it in 2019.

On Tuesday, the agency announced the plan needs only an environmental assessment — a less time-consuming option than an environmental impact statement. Assessments require only "briefly" evaluating whether a project will have a significant environmental impact, according to the agency.

Officials and transit experts said the congestion pricing plan stands to reduce traffic in the toll area, improve air quality and generate much-needed revenue for mass transit in the region — including the Long Island Rail Road.

MTA chairman Patrick Foye said the guidance from Washington enables the agency to "hit the ground running" with the plan. The MTA is already at work designing the toll system and infrastructure, he said.

The MTA has not yet said how much the tolls will cost.

Tolling was originally slated to begin early this year, but the MTA in December announced the delayed response from Washington pushed back the likely start to 2023. MTA representatives on Tuesday did not say whether the latest announcement will speed up the timeline.

Such delays are costly for the MTA, which expects to receive $1 billion in revenue from the tolling and to bond against that revenue to raise billions more. The LIRR stands to get about 10% of that new income, which will go toward upgrading signals, switches, tracks and stations.

Tom Wright, president and chief executive of the Regional Plan Association, attributed the delays to the project becoming a "political football" between New York and Washington during the administration of President Donald Trump. The announcement Tuesday seemed to indicate the project has more support in the new administration of President Joe Biden, he said.

In a statement, Acting Federal Highway Administrator Stephanie Pollack said the agency "looks forward to assisting New York so we can arrive at a prompt and informed NEPA determination on this important and precedent-setting project." NEPA stands for National Environmental Policy Act.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio welcomed the news of the project's progress. Asked whether congestion pricing was a tax on suburban commuters, de Blasio said: "This is everyone helping to ensure that this city works for everyone, not just in the five boroughs but the entire metropolitan area."

With Matthew Chayes

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