Toll readers at Park Ave. and 61st St. in Manhattan...

Toll readers at Park Ave. and 61st St. in Manhattan on Friday. Credit: ED QUINN

Congestion pricing opponents faced off with transportation officials in a Manhattan courtroom Friday in a last-ditch effort to stop the controversial tolling plan before it can take effect next month.

Attorneys representing a slate of plaintiffs, including several New York City residents, a teachers’ union and some elected officials, made their case to a federal judge as to why the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Central Business District Tolling Program was not thoroughly vetted, and could do more harm than good.

“People will go out of business,” said Jack Lester, an attorney representing New Yorkers Against Congestion Pricing Tax, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. “Employees will lose their jobs if they can't afford to get to their places of employment.”

Far from eliminating traffic congestion, the tolling plan “is distributing it to already burdened communities,” said attorney Alan Klinger, who represents several plaintiffs.

“Our case is not an attack on the concept of congestion pricing,” Klinger said in his opening statements. “What this case is about is whether a proper assessment was taken.”

But attorneys representing the MTA and federal transportation officials said they followed the law in thoroughly considering the impacts of the first-in-the-nation congestion pricing plan, which will charge most vehicles $15 for driving below 60th Street in Manhattan during peak hours.

“The Manhattan central business district has the worst traffic congestion” in the U.S., said attorney Elizabeth Knauer, who represents the MTA. She urged U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Liman to put a stop to the “indefinite snowball effect” of lawsuits aiming to delay the congestion pricing plan, scheduled to start June 30. 

While not making a decision, Liman appeared skeptical of the argument the MTA and federal transportation officials hadn't done their due diligence. Liman pointed out that a 4,000-page environmental study took years to prepare.

“It doesn't quite seem like a rush to judgment,” Liman said.

But the plaintiffs' attorneys argued that the environmental assessment that was undertaken seemed more focused on coming up with a plan that would generate the targeted $1 billion in annual toll revenue than strategies to reduce congestion. “This idea that they have to raise a billion dollars in revenue is not right,” said attorney David Kahne, who called the $15 toll amount “draconian.”

Attorneys for the MTA and the other defendants noted that the $1 billion revenue goal was included in the 2019 law adopted by the state Legislature calling for congestion pricing.

Liman didn't appear swayed by the arguments questioning the tolls’ revenue goal. “Am I supposed to play the role of the New York State Legislature?” Liman asked. “Whether there should be that amount of money going to the MTA … is a decision for the people’s representatives, not an Article III judge.”

After reviewing the assessment, federal authorities last year determined that there was “no significant impact” from the tolling plan, clearing the way for the MTA to move forward. But plaintiffs said the process was “backward” because it made that finding before the tolling program was finalized and the harm from it becomes apparent. The MTA's lawyers noted that the plan sets aside $155 million for mitigation measures, including air filtration systems in some schools and new park land.

Kahne said the MTA’s mitigation plan was a “menu of vague, nonspecific” measures, and questioned how, if at all, it would be enforced. “We don’t know when these things will happen. It could be tomorrow. It could be in 10 years,” he said.

The project opponents also noted that the plan ultimately adopted by the MTA earlier this year was considerably different from the one greenlit by the federal authorities, with different toll amounts, peak hours, discounts, and policies for taxis and for-hire vehicles. “It is not the congestion scheme that was reviewed by the agency,” Kahne said.

The MTA's lawyers acknowledged that the plan had undergone some changes, but assured the judge that it would not be implemented until federal authorities conducted a “final re-evaluation process” that they expect to be completed in time for the June target date.

Defense lawyers dismissed the arguments in the suits as “scattershot,” and suggested they should be tossed out because they were filed after a statute of limitations expired.

Liman gave no hint of when he would rule on the arguments. Meanwhile, several other lawsuits challenging the congestion pricing plan are also pending, including one filed by New Jersey state officials that was heard in court last month. The most recent suit, filed by the Town of Hempstead, is awaiting its first court date.

Speaking outside the courthouse, MTA chairman and CEO Janno Lieber said all the suits challenging congestion pricing — including Hempstead’s — are “basically the same.”

“I think they’ll be resolved in a similar manner,” said Lieber, who briefly attended the hearing. “Really the issue is, was a 4,000-page four-year study sufficient? We think it is. The federal government gave us an ‘A+.’ That’s why we’re confident.”

Also in attendance was Brian Fritsch, associate director of the MTA's Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which includes the LIRR Commuter Council. He said he didn't find the plaintiffs' arguments “particularly convincing.”

“I feel pretty confident that the program is going to go forward as scheduled,” Frisch said. “I really feel like, looking at the evidence today, that the amount of work done to get this program up and going … they really did dot all their 'i's' and cross all their 't's.'”

With Matthew Chayes

Congestion pricing opponents faced off with transportation officials in a Manhattan courtroom Friday in a last-ditch effort to stop the controversial tolling plan before it can take effect next month.

Attorneys representing a slate of plaintiffs, including several New York City residents, a teachers’ union and some elected officials, made their case to a federal judge as to why the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Central Business District Tolling Program was not thoroughly vetted, and could do more harm than good.

“People will go out of business,” said Jack Lester, an attorney representing New Yorkers Against Congestion Pricing Tax, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. “Employees will lose their jobs if they can't afford to get to their places of employment.”

Far from eliminating traffic congestion, the tolling plan “is distributing it to already burdened communities,” said attorney Alan Klinger, who represents several plaintiffs.

WHAT TO KNOW 

  • A federal judge heard arguments about lawsuits challenging the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's congestion pricing plan on Friday.
  • Opponents said it was not thoroughly vetted, and could do more harm than good.

  • Attorneys representing the MTA and federal transportation officials said they followed the law in thoroughly considering the impacts.

“Our case is not an attack on the concept of congestion pricing,” Klinger said in his opening statements. “What this case is about is whether a proper assessment was taken.”

But attorneys representing the MTA and federal transportation officials said they followed the law in thoroughly considering the impacts of the first-in-the-nation congestion pricing plan, which will charge most vehicles $15 for driving below 60th Street in Manhattan during peak hours.

“The Manhattan central business district has the worst traffic congestion” in the U.S., said attorney Elizabeth Knauer, who represents the MTA. She urged U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Liman to put a stop to the “indefinite snowball effect” of lawsuits aiming to delay the congestion pricing plan, scheduled to start June 30. 

While not making a decision, Liman appeared skeptical of the argument the MTA and federal transportation officials hadn't done their due diligence. Liman pointed out that a 4,000-page environmental study took years to prepare.

“It doesn't quite seem like a rush to judgment,” Liman said.

But the plaintiffs' attorneys argued that the environmental assessment that was undertaken seemed more focused on coming up with a plan that would generate the targeted $1 billion in annual toll revenue than strategies to reduce congestion. “This idea that they have to raise a billion dollars in revenue is not right,” said attorney David Kahne, who called the $15 toll amount “draconian.”

Attorneys for the MTA and the other defendants noted that the $1 billion revenue goal was included in the 2019 law adopted by the state Legislature calling for congestion pricing.

Liman didn't appear swayed by the arguments questioning the tolls’ revenue goal. “Am I supposed to play the role of the New York State Legislature?” Liman asked. “Whether there should be that amount of money going to the MTA … is a decision for the people’s representatives, not an Article III judge.”

After reviewing the assessment, federal authorities last year determined that there was “no significant impact” from the tolling plan, clearing the way for the MTA to move forward. But plaintiffs said the process was “backward” because it made that finding before the tolling program was finalized and the harm from it becomes apparent. The MTA's lawyers noted that the plan sets aside $155 million for mitigation measures, including air filtration systems in some schools and new park land.

Kahne said the MTA’s mitigation plan was a “menu of vague, nonspecific” measures, and questioned how, if at all, it would be enforced. “We don’t know when these things will happen. It could be tomorrow. It could be in 10 years,” he said.

The project opponents also noted that the plan ultimately adopted by the MTA earlier this year was considerably different from the one greenlit by the federal authorities, with different toll amounts, peak hours, discounts, and policies for taxis and for-hire vehicles. “It is not the congestion scheme that was reviewed by the agency,” Kahne said.

The MTA's lawyers acknowledged that the plan had undergone some changes, but assured the judge that it would not be implemented until federal authorities conducted a “final re-evaluation process” that they expect to be completed in time for the June target date.

Defense lawyers dismissed the arguments in the suits as “scattershot,” and suggested they should be tossed out because they were filed after a statute of limitations expired.

Liman gave no hint of when he would rule on the arguments. Meanwhile, several other lawsuits challenging the congestion pricing plan are also pending, including one filed by New Jersey state officials that was heard in court last month. The most recent suit, filed by the Town of Hempstead, is awaiting its first court date.

Speaking outside the courthouse, MTA chairman and CEO Janno Lieber said all the suits challenging congestion pricing — including Hempstead’s — are “basically the same.”

“I think they’ll be resolved in a similar manner,” said Lieber, who briefly attended the hearing. “Really the issue is, was a 4,000-page four-year study sufficient? We think it is. The federal government gave us an ‘A+.’ That’s why we’re confident.”

Also in attendance was Brian Fritsch, associate director of the MTA's Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which includes the LIRR Commuter Council. He said he didn't find the plaintiffs' arguments “particularly convincing.”

“I feel pretty confident that the program is going to go forward as scheduled,” Frisch said. “I really feel like, looking at the evidence today, that the amount of work done to get this program up and going … they really did dot all their 'i's' and cross all their 't's.'”

With Matthew Chayes

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