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Manhattan tolling plan presents a puzzle

Congestion pricing isn’t meant to be easy.

Indeed, it’ll only work if it’s not.

But that’s not stopping an unsurprising parade of elected officials, union leaders and others from seeking breaks so they or their constituents won’t have to pay tolls to drive into Manhattan’s central business district when congestion pricing goes into effect in 2021.

With few exceptions, a panel tasked with determining those exemptions must say no.

In the latest example of seeking a break, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy claimed Wednesday to have reached a deal with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to establish a system “fair to New Jersey,” that would treat the George Washington Bridge the same as the Lincoln or Holland tunnels. Hours later, Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief executive Pat Foye pushed back, saying, “We have no idea what he is talking about.”

This back-and-forth came as a series of interest groups demanded credits. Police unions, truckers, bus companies, motorcyclists and people with disabilities or medical needs are asking to avoid the tolls. Pretty soon, there won’t be anyone left to pay.

In approving congestion pricing earlier this month, legislators in Albany hoped to accomplish two defining goals: Raise money for the MTA’s capital needs and reduce the number of cars and trucks on midtown and lower Manhattan streets by discouraging their use. It’s unfortunate that some elected officials, particularly those in New Jersey, don’t support a plan to help achieve those goals, even though their commuters would benefit, too.

Ultimately, the tolling system has to raise $1 billion a year for the MTA. Implementing the plan will be complicated. The biggest challenge for the panel likely will be to figure out how bridge and tunnel drivers will be charged. The original Move NY plan proposed by traffic expert Sam Schwartz allowed for those who took the four tunnels into the central business district — the Midtown, Hugh Carey, Lincoln and Holland — to pay only the difference between the tunnel toll and the congestion-pricing fee when driving into the zone below 61st Street in Manhattan. It’s important that the Hudson River and East River crossings be placed on equal footing so the burden is shared. The same is true of bridges and tunnels across the same river to avoid drivers choosing crossings that might be less expensive, which could cause bottlenecks. Any plan also must establish big cost differences between peak and off-peak tolling — a key to changing behavior, especially by those making deliveries.

In the meantime, New Jersey officials should focus on New Jersey’s needs, like improving cashless tolling on Hudson River crossings and public transit there. It’s important to note that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey uses tolls from Hudson River crossings to subsidize the PATH train service to Manhattan and the Manhattan Port Authority bus terminals. New Jersey commuters also will benefit from improved New York City subway and bus service.

New York can’t move forward if we can’t move at all.

— The editorial board