Talk of congestion pricing in Manhattan's central business district has...

Talk of congestion pricing in Manhattan's central business district has resurfaced in recent weeks. Credit: Charles Eckert

Even high gas prices aren't stopping New Yorkers from getting into their cars for a leisurely summer drive, a trip to the office or a day in Manhattan.

Which nowadays means getting into their cars so they can sit in miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic with everyone else heading out for a leisurely drive, a trip to the office or a day in Manhattan.

Such traffic isn't unusual or surprising, but it is unsustainable. And it's particularly awful for those heading into New York City. You only need to watch the lengthy lines of cars snaking toward the free-to-cross 59th Street Bridge to know no one in that mess is "feelin' groovy."

So, it's not really a surprise that even amid rising costs and an uncertain economy, talk of congestion pricing — the ill-named phrase used to describe the smart and bold idea of tolling Manhattan's central business district — has resurfaced in recent weeks, after remaining fairly quiet for much of the pandemic.

And it rightly won't be going away anytime soon.

After all, tolling the entrances into Manhattan's central business district — which includes charging for currently free bridges along the East River — will produce broad benefits, from getting cars off the roads and reducing air pollution to improving residents' quality of life. Then there's the need to upgrade mass transit. Congestion pricing is really the only sensible and appropriate way for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to fund future capital projects, in an era when the MTA faces enormous financial uncertainty.

You might think supporting subways, buses and commuter rails, and those who use them, along with cleaning up the air and limiting fossil fuels, would bring a resounding "yes, please" response, especially from elected officials who claim to care about those issues.

But congestion pricing is a political hot potato, a third rail many politicians have danced around, or refused to touch altogether. 

Even needed federal approvals have been abysmally slow in coming, especially from a Biden administration supposedly supportive of the concept. Most recently, the MTA had to address more than 400 questions from the Federal Highway Administration as part of its environmental review. Now, federal officials are reviewing the answers. Inexplicably, neither questions nor answers have been made public. I've filed a Freedom of Information Law request for them.

Meanwhile, environmental reviews and other work hopefully will move forward this summer and fall. But congestion pricing is still more than a year away.

That could complicate the election season, especially for Gov. Kathy Hochul. She has tried to walk a fine, yet awkward, line between backing congestion pricing and running away from it, since many key constituents, especially in suburbs like Long Island, hate the idea. During a primary debate, Hochul argued that "now is not the right time" for the concept, but later expressed support. New York City Mayor Eric Adams, meanwhile, likes to emphasize exemptions. That's a popular, but bizarre, train of thought: The more exemptions handed out, the higher the toll will have to be.

Congestion pricing was never going to be easy. It's a big change — and change is always hard. But add in a lack of broad political courage, an election year, inflation and the ongoing hesitancy to return to mass transit, and the leisurely summer drive will, at least for now, remain a daydream.

Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.