Ever since then-mayor Michael Bloomberg first proposed congestion pricing as part of his inaugural 2002 budget, it has been the holy grail of New York transportation advocacy. Why has it taken so long? In addition to alleged political corruption, the answer was always that people just didn’t get it. Non-Manhattan residents, in particular, didn’t understand that the plan wasn’t designed for Manhattanites—to keep drivers from clogging up streets in midtown and downtown—but to benefit poorer people in the outer boroughs.
Officials stressed that congestion pricing would benefit the South Bronx. In 2007, Bloomberg spoke at a Harlem church, promising that congestion pricing would remove “disease-causing soot” from poor areas, including Bronx neighborhoods. A decade later, congestion-pricing advocates distributed fact sheets in the South Bronx, noting that the program would “reduce traffic [and] cut air pollution” and thus reduce childhood asthma. I’ve attended community forums over the years at which a neighborhood resident has asked, reasonably enough, how this could be true, given that the Bronx was so far from the Manhattan zone. The answer sounded reasonable: congestion pricing would so reduce the desire to drive to Manhattan that traffic would ease everywhere.
In 20 years of watching, and sometimes participating in, congestion-pricing advocacy, I’ve never seen a supporter warn that the policy might add trucks to the Cross-Bronx Expressway and raise the number of “vehicle miles traveled” in the borough overall. Those who did raise such concerns were dismissed as either corrupt or too dumb to understand congestion pricing. But they deserve some credit now. In 2007, Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr., who represented the Bronx, pronounced himself “sort of torn.” Though worried about the environment, he said of congestion pricing, “I think in its present state, there are too many concerns.” His father, State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., representing the same district, wondered: “Who is going to assure us that the people who are suffering from asthma are not going to be suffering more?” When congestion pricing died, Bloomberg chalked up the loss to elected officials’ “shameful . . . cowardice.” There was plenty of that, but there were also real issues that Bloomberg had attempted to steamroll.
Fast-forward to 2022. New York—under the auspices of the state, not the city—finally has a concrete congestion-pricing proposal. In accordance with federal law, the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority prepared an environmental assessment: hundreds of pages of detailed documents full of real numbers and projections. The MTA and the Biden administration have worked together on this project for nearly two years, and the MTA has answered hundreds of detailed questions posed by the federal government. To the extent that anyone can project future traffic conditions, these numbers credibly do so.
Surprise: tucked away in a subsection 4a, the environmental document predicts that the Bronx, overall, will see more traffic, not less, under congestion pricing (as will Staten Island). “Increases in [vehicle miles traveled] in the Bronx would be driven largely by increases . . . on the Cross Bronx Expressway,” the report notes. “Commercial truck [vehicle miles travelled] contribut[e] roughly 25 percent of the overall [vehicle miles travelled] increase in all tolling scenarios.” In all but one option, truck traffic on the Cross-Bronx increases by 170 to more than 700 additional heavy vehicles daily. In only one of the MTA’s seven proposed toll-price scenarios—one in which the toll to enter Manhattan would be the same for trucks and cars—would the number of extra trucks on the Cross-Bronx be kept to 50. True, vehicle miles travelled on two other highways, the Major Deegan and the Bruckner, would decline—but overall, in the borough, highway and overall mileage travelled would rise, not fall.
Ritchie Torres, the congressman representing the area, is a generally mild-mannered, serious, knowledgeable guy—smart about transit and a principled supporter of congestion pricing, despite the skepticism of many of his constituents. Yet even he was shocked. On Monday, he held a press conference to say that he felt “ambushed” and “blindsided and misled.” He noted that “the MTA’s plan for congestion pricing would divert diesel truck traffic from Manhattan to the Bronx. . . . That is not fair, that is not right, and that is not what the people of the Bronx were promised. . . . The Bronx is the most congested and polluted place” in New York, “and the congestion plan would make it even more so.”
Genuine surprises in official government documents are unusual. So why was this one never flagged, except by people long opposed to congestion pricing? One potential answer is that the MTA’s modeling is all wrong. Charles Komanoff gamely makes that argument here, and a few longtime congestion-pricing experts have made it privately. Others have argued that traffic forecasting is a complex business, and since it’s never been tried before in the U.S., it’s essentially a guessing game. If the model is wrong, then officials should engage with transportation experts such as Komanoff and fix it.
But one could also make this argument in the opposite direction. Out of a menu of entirely speculative, credible options—again, the MTA has seven potential iterations for congestion-pricing tolls—couldn’t the MTA’s consultants and the agency have made certain assumptions that would have yielded a neutral impact on traffic on the Cross Bronx, at worst, rather than added hundreds of trucks a day? If there is no “right” answer, why not, from the perspective of securing final approval for congestion pricing, find an answer that looks better? That the MTA didn’t do so is a testament to the agency’s honesty—but it doesn’t bode well for an easy solution to the Bronx mess. If it were just a matter of guessing in one direction instead of another, staying well within the realm of plausibility, the MTA would have done that (excluding the possibility of incompetence, of course). The traffic projections are more likely a best-case, not a worst-case scenario, as Torres said Monday.
The transportation advocates soon found that they couldn’t ignore the Bronx problem. For people who had promised traffic and asthma reductions in the Bronx and pointed to the Cross-Bronx as the very model of a racist highway, dismissing more congestion would have been too incongruous.
But they are still trying to ignore certain other flaws in the congestion-pricing plan, and these flaws aren’t unrelated to the Bronx issue. Why, for example, has the MTA designated 14 hours a day as a “peak” period for the maximum toll, from $9 to $23? (The final rate will depend on whether the MTA credits people who have paid tolls on other crossings from the west and the east, such as the Triborough Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel.) The MTA’s commuter-rail systems don’t define “peak” hours this way. Indeed, doing so dilutes the meaning of the word.
Moreover, the menu of potential tolls offers no option for free entries in off hours, even though a 2018 report commissioned by Governor Andrew Cuomo envisioned free driving times. Charging people between $5 and $12 to drive to Manhattan at 2 a.m. makes no sense if the goals of reducing congestion and getting people to use transit are of equal weight to the goal of raising money. The roads are not congested at 2 a.m., and, for a suburbanite, no commuter-rail option from the north exists at that time of night. But once again, just like the Bronx mess, it does make sense in a certain light. Thanks to stagnant ridership, just 60 percent of the pre-Covid normal, the MTA is desperate for money, running $2.6 billion annual deficits papered over only with federal money and borrowing—well beyond the $1 billion annually it will raise from congestion pricing starting a year from now.
Yet there is no political appetite for cost reform. With inflation running in the near double digits, and with the MTA’s contract with its largest union up next year, there’s a real risk that the entire $1 billion annually will go not to long-promised better infrastructure, but to worker raises so that pay, running nearly $6 billion a year annually already, keeps up with two years’ worth of cost inflation.
Another odd result: citywide, the long-term consequence of congestion pricing, according to the MTA’s outlook for 2045, is an increase in traffic from today’s levels, from roughly 47.1 million vehicle miles traveled each day to between 48.9 and 49.4 million by 2045. Long-term, even the traffic impact within the Manhattan core is basically flat—after drivers gradually adjust to the fee, a reduction of just 3.1 percent in vehicle miles traveled from the current level. This, to put it mildly, was not what congestion-pricing advocates have been promising for nearly two decades.
The advocates are minimizing these projections, arguing not only that the model might be wrong but also that we can do other things to reduce traffic later. But what, exactly—and with what money? Again, absent massive cost reform on the construction side as well as the operating side, one of the likely reasons the MTA forecasted rising traffic citywide over the long term is that most people who drive in today still won’t have more convenient alternative options. Even with congestion pricing, transit riders are looking at a future of higher fares and less frequent service.
A congestion-pricing plan that delivers what advocates have promised New Yorkers over the past two decades—lower traffic levels citywide, including in the South Bronx, thanks to reduced driving to Manhattan; vastly better transit service; and long-term pricing that values reducing congestion at least as highly as the need to raise money (that is, no 14-hour “peak” periods)—is a good idea. If the modeling is all wrong and the MTA can fix its Bronx problem by finding the equivalent of a spreadsheet error, then it should do so. But if not, advocates need to advocate for the right plan, not any plan.
The city has only one chance to get this right. The entire point of the federally required environmental assessment is to uncover problems that need fixing. But they can’t be fixed by the circle-the-wagons attitude of congestion-pricing advocates who apparently believe that political support for congestion pricing is so fragile that it will break at the most delicate touch.
Many advocates equate any criticism of this plan with a desire for more delay and, potentially, cancellation. But it is the Biden and Hochul administrations—not congestion-pricing skeptics or opponents—who long delayed preparing and releasing these federally mandated documents, pushing off congestion pricing’s start date over and over again. Perhaps now we can see the reasons for the delays.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images