First U.S. Congestion Pricing Plan Gets Closer to Reality in New York City

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There’s no getting around it: New York City traffic is bad. At peak hours of the day, traffic is at a virtual standstill in many areas, and with EVs still only a small percentage of overall traffic, air quality and traffic noise can be terrible. In various parts of the world, including downtown London, a tolling system has been devised which levies fees against vehicle owners whose vehicles are driven into busy parts of a city during peak hours. These plans are typically known as “congestion pricing” and New York City is expected to be the first city in the United States to implement its own version.

In rolling out the London program, several steps were involved. First a “LEZ” (low emission zone) was defined. This is the area of London which was identified as most problematic for particulate emissions. Fines and tolls were instated, at first solely for commercial diesel vehicles, to lower emissions and to reduce traffic in the zone. Over time, the rules became stricter, and a smaller “Ultra Low Emission Zone” was defined, which applies to all gas-powered vehicles. The program has been tweaked multiple times over the years. Results so far have been pretty impressive.

According to a recent study, London’s central Ultra-Low Emission Zone saw nitrogen dioxide decrease by nearly half within the first ten months and carbon emissions decline by 6%. Before the “ULEZ” was defined, the Congestion Charge saw a 30% reduction in traffic congestion in the first year alone, as more people used public transportation. This so-called “Road pricing” program has transformed air pollution, with improvements between 2016 and 2019 five times greater in London than the UK national average. You can read more about the results of this program to date in the report: How Road Pricing is Transforming London and What Your City Can Learn.

New York City’s congestion pricing program has been dubbed the “Central Business District Tolling Program” (CBDTP). It has been in the works for several years, with multiple proposals related to hours, exact toll amounts, potential exclusions, exemptions and credits. But in a nutshell, the entire island of Manhattan south of 61st Street will be considered the “central business district” and tolls will go into effect during peak hours for most passenger and commercial vehicles who enter or drive within that zone. The highways which run at the periphery of the island (e.g., FDR Drive and the West Side Highway) are exempt. Proposed tolls range from $9 to $23 for cars and light trucks if you use an E-ZPass transponder. Those without an E-ZPass device will receive tolls by mail, which may be as high as $14-$35, depending which version of the plan goes into effect. Commercial vehicles will likely pay even more.

On May 5, 2023, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) approved the city’s release of the Final Environmental Assessment (EA) and issued a draft Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the CBD Tolling Program. By finding “No Significant Impact,” the federal organization is paving the way for state and local regulators and organizers to continue working out the final details of the program. The official 30-day public review period for the Final EA and draft FONSI for the Project is open from May 12, 2023 through June 12, 2023.

According to the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), funds raised by the program will be used primarily to improve the city’s mass transportation infrastructure. In a statement issued by NY Governor Kathy Hochul’s office, the program is expected to raise “up to $15 Billion” toward the MTA’s ongoing 2020-2024 Capital Improvement Program. Of the money raised, approximately 80% would be used for MTA investments in subways and busses, 10% would go to Metro North and 10% would go to the Long Island Railroad commuter lines.

The exact rollout date of New York City’s congestion pricing plan has yet to be determined as multiple issues need to be resolved, both political and technical. The current estimate is that the earliest a rollout could happen is next spring (2024). No fewer than seven different tolling scenarios have been proposed, with supporters and detractors for each. In most plans, the fee would be charged only once per day, even if the vehicle enters and exits the CBD multiple times. This is particularly useful for ride-share services like Lyft and Uber, so costs per ride are not significantly impacted. Also, drivers who live within the CBD and earn less than $60,000/year would likely be able to deduct these tolls from their state taxes. Unlike the London version, the New York City proposals currently offer no discounts or exemptions for drivers of Electric Vehicles.

Details of New York City’s Central Business District Tolling Program including the Final Environmental Impact report and the “FONSI” can be found on the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s web site. It makes for a fascinating (if arduous) read.

In general, I think plans like this make sense. Like many cities, New York City’s traffic has grown virtually unchecked over time to the point where now many residents simply avoid driving or taking a taxi or car service in rush hour entirely, if possible. According to the MTA, Before COVID-19, 700,000 vehicles entered the Central Business District each day – more than 255 million vehicles each year. This glut of cars has resulted in average traffic speeds of only 7 miles per hour in the CBD, and even slower in Midtown. You can definitely get around the city faster on a subway, or on a bike, but even bicycles have to compete with cars in New York City on many streets. While traffic dropped to 10% of normal levels in 2020, it has since rebounded to close to where it was before the pandemic. If the money raised from this program really is invested back into public transit, then getting around the city five years from now may be a bit easier, not to mention quieter and sweeter smelling.

Got an opinion about this or congestion pricing plans in general? Let us know in the comments.

Related Reading: 

Congestion Pricing Cuts London Traffic 30% – Now New York Wants In

Is Road Pricing the Way to Equalize Electric and Gas-Powered Vehicles?

Instead of Pitting Cars Against Transit, Let’s Rethink Pointless Commuting

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Chris Boylan

is an EV and alternative fuel enthusiast who has been writing about technology since 2003.

Chris Boylan has 68 posts and counting. See all posts by Chris Boylan