The MTA Board held public hearings on congestion pricing at...

The MTA Board held public hearings on congestion pricing at MTA Headquarters on Thursday evening, and then again Friday. Chairman and CEO Janno Lieber, center, said he was “very sympathetic” to firefighters' situation. Credit: Metropolitan Transportation Auth/Marc A. Hermann

Scores of New Yorkers made their cases for why they should not have to pay the forthcoming congestion pricing tolls at a series of public hearings, and the head of the MTA suggested that at least one of those groups — New York City firefighters — may have a good argument.

More than 300 people registered to speak at the first two public hearings,  Thursday and Friday, hosted by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on its Central Business District Tolling Program, which will charge most vehicles $15 for driving below 60th Street in Manhattan during peak hours.

The MTA hopes to start charging the tolls as early as June, but has said the effort could be delayed by several lawsuits challenging its legality.

The hearings at the MTA’s Manhattan headquarters, but also open to virtual testimony over Zoom, brought out a range of opinions, including from transit advocates, elected officials and New Yorkers living within and outside of the tolling district.  Two more hearings are scheduled for Monday.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The MTA held a pair of public hearings on its congestion pricing program on Thursday and Friday. Two more hearings are scheduled for Monday.

  • More than 300 speakers registered to speak, including many who supported the plan's potential to reduce traffic in Manhattan. Others opposed the new tolls as overly burdensome on motorists.

  • Although the MTA has said it wants to keep exemptions to a minimum, the agency's chairman, Janno Lieber, said he was "very sympathetic" to New York City firefighters who regularly drive personal vehicles to and from firehouses.

Friday's hearing drew several New York City firefighters, who pointed out that they are routinely reassigned to different firehouses based on needs, and — following FDNY policy — use their personal vehicles to transport themselves and 50 to 80 pounds of gear while on the job. 

“Members would then be crossing in and out of the congestion pricing zone as they go from one firehouse to the next,” said Andrew Ansbro, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York. “I don’t think anyone here thinks it’s safe for a New York City firefighter to carry that bag from the firehouse, down to the subway, up and out … and then show up at a firehouse and be expected to fight a fire at full capacity.”

Firefighters also noted that their smoke-covered gear can contain carcinogens that are dangerous to the public.

Speaking during a break in Friday's three-and-a-half hour hearing, MTA chairman and CEO Janno Lieber said he was “very sympathetic” to the firefighters' situation.

“They’re not asking for special treatment because they commute with their cars. They’re asking for consideration, broadly speaking, for the situation … when they’re asked to turn their personal vehicle into a government vehicle for the transportation of gear,” Lieber said. “That was news that we're going to chew on.”

Under state law, only vehicles transporting people with disabilities and emergency vehicles are automatically exempt from the tolls. The MTA has signaled that it will also exempt transit buses and certain government vehicles.

Congestion pricing supporter Jean Ryan, in her testimony, warned against many more exemptions, and said traffic conditions just outside Thursday night's hearing illustrated the need for the plan.

“An ambulance was there and the siren was going on and on and nobody could move to get out of the way,” Ryan said Friday. “Some people will have to pay more, because you can’t have nobody pay and still have congestion pricing.”

Lieber made it clear that the MTA is “still very much committed to the vision” of keeping the toll as low as possible by minimizing exemptions. But that didn't keep speakers, ranging from teachers to the self-employed, for asking for carve-outs.

During Thursday's hearing, Dr. Fumiko Chino, a radiation oncologist working at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, said the tolls would place a huge burden on patients who travel into Manhattan for daily radiation treatments for weeks at a time “and are often too sick to use public transportation.”

“This congestion fee is, essentially, a cancer tax on people who need medical care to survive,” Chino said.

Others said they supported the plan’s potential to reduce pedestrian accidents, like the 2017 crash that Kate Brockwehl said left her with multiple injuries.

“I was hit in what will be the Central Business District, and the driver who hit me was making a trip of convenience,” Brockwehl said. “Congestion pricing will make people like that rethink their trips.”

Congestion pricing is expected to generate $1 billion annually in toll revenue that will be dedicated to transit infrastructure, including at the Long Island Rail Road.

The $15 toll would apply to most vehicles with E-ZPass. Trucks would be charged $24 to $36, depending on size. Non E-ZPass customers would pay 50% more, making the base toll $22.50.

Rates would be discounted by 75% overnight — 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. on weekdays and 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. on weekends.

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