Traffic on Second Avenue in Manhattan in 2018.  

Traffic on Second Avenue in Manhattan in 2018.   Credit: Charles Eckert

A plan to toll drivers in lower Manhattan that would help fund improvements to the Long Island Rail Road could be pushed back to 2023 because of a delayed response from the federal government on the initiative, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The agency announced the potential setback to its congestion pricing plan in a public filing last week. The MTA is required to examine the project's potential environmental impact, but MTA spokesman Ken Lovett said Wednesday the Federal Highway Administration has yet to say what that study must entail.

"While we’re more hopeful the Central Business District Tolling Program will move forward under a [President-elect Joe] Biden administration, we continue to await clarity from the feds on what type of environmental review will be required that will help determine when the program will be enacted," Lovett said in a statement.

A Federal Highway Administration representative said the proposal is still under review, and that the review must be thorough, as the plan would create the first such congestion pricing zone in the country.

State lawmakers passed the initiative last year, with an original start date slated for early 2021. But the plan, which would toll drivers entering Manhattan's "central business district" south of 60th Street, requires approval from Washington, D.C., because federal funding has gone toward some roads in the toll area.

MTA officials repeatedly have met with officials from the administration of President Donald Trump to discuss the plan, Lovett said. But the federal signoff has not come, for reasons Lovett said are unknown to the MTA.

A delay in implementing congestion pricing would be costly to the MTA, which estimates the tolling in Manhattan would yield $1 billion annually. The agency plans to issue bonds off the revenue to help fund infrastructure improvements, including upgrades to Long Island Rail Road stations, tracks, signals and switches.

The MTA has seen fare and toll collections plummet during the coronavirus pandemic. On Monday, LIRR ridership was down 76%, and bridge and tunnel traffic was down 15%, MTA data shows.

The agency said it needs $12 billion in federal funding to avoid drastic service cuts.

The Regional Plan Association and other advocacy groups released a statement Monday calling the potential delay "disastrous for the New York metro region’s 12 million riders and our state and regional economy."

The statement noted other benefits of congestion pricing, including lighter traffic and cleaner air, also will be stalled.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he was not troubled by the news of the possible delay. Many Long Islanders feel safer in their cars than on trains because of the pandemic, he said, and they should not have to pay more to drive into Manhattan because of that.

"With the world upside down the way it is, congestion pricing just doesn't make any sense," he said. "But when the world does return to whatever the new normal is, it's certainly important that we pursue it and make sure it's implemented as fairly as possible."

The MTA has taken steps to keep passengers safe from COVID-19, including requiring masks and cleaning trains frequently. Agency officials have said there has not been a large coronavirus outbreak traced back to transit.

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