For those still working from and staying at home, it may seem like a strange moment to talk about a new toll on cars traveling into Manhattan's central business district.
But the effort known as congestion pricing remains key to the future of mass transit, and to the region as a whole. With suburban-city commuter traffic on the rise, it'll be important to lure people back to the trains and buses to make a post-pandemic comeback a reality.
So, the news last month that federal Department of Transportation officials have greenlit the start of an environmental assessment — a more expeditious, but still thorough, review process — on New York's congestion pricing plan is an important step, not only for this particular plan, but also for the region's economic recovery and the improved quality of life needed for Manhattan's revival. Recent efforts by elected officials to stop or delay congestion pricing are shortsighted and unhelpful.
Now, it'll be up to federal officials and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to move the process forward quickly. MTA officials say that will include holding public hearings across the region, including on Long Island. Those hearings should include both virtual and in-person components. Long Islanders likely will have concerns and added costs, but that's a trade-off for getting more individuals out of their cars, reducing traffic, improving air quality, and appropriately funding mass transit — including the Long Island Rail Road.
During the environmental assessment, federal officials should allow the MTA to work simultaneously on preparing the infrastructure and operations to get congestion pricing up and running.
Throughout, the MTA must keep the public informed with clear, open decision-making. That starts with choosing members of the Traffic Mobility Review Board, which is tasked with deciding details including the tolls' cost and variability and whether anyone — such as those with disabilities — would be exempt from paying the fees. Once the board is established, its work must be public and its timetable must be swift. It'll be up to that board, along with state and federal officials, to determine whether anything about the congestion pricing plan should change in a post-pandemic world.
But even if some details were to change, state officials and lawmakers must not waver in their overall support of the congestion pricing effort, which is just as important as it was two years ago, if not more so. Already, traffic over the MTA's bridges and through its tunnels is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels. The key now will be trying to bring people back to the trains and buses; making it more expensive to drive into part of Manhattan can help to encourage that switch.
By the time the state is ready for such tolling to go into effect, residents hopefully will be returning to a level of normalcy. With that must come a return to the priorities, goals and plans that are so critical to our future.
— The editorial board