Fix NYC’s Congestion Pricing Plan: The Fix for the Subway?

Julie Samuels, Executive Director

Well-functioning public transit is the lifeblood of NYC. It is what connects the Bronx and Brooklyn, what can bring you from Coney Island to the New York Public Library. And it is the system that carries millions of New Yorkers from their homes to their jobs. The subway helps companies recruit talent to NYC and helps New Yorkers of all stripes—CEOs and hourly workers—get to work everyday.

After finding the system in crisis, Governor Cuomo created Fix NYC—an advisory panel charged with identifying short-term and long-term solutions that could help improve transit options both above ground and below. Friday, Fix NYC released its much-anticipated report that, among other things, recommends a congestion pricing framework where vehicles in Manhattan would pay surcharges that in turn would be used to fund much-needed fixes to the subway.

While the proposal for a congestion pricing regime (more on that below) is making the most headlines, the report included some other interesting observations and recommendations as well. A few highlights:

1. New York City Is Crowded!

No surprises here—New York City is incredibly crowded, and that congestion will cost the city’s economy more than $100 billion over the next five years. The Fix NYC report unpacks the various causes for this, but, in short, more people, cars, and trucks are fighting for less space due to dedicated bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, and bus lanes. While those important upgrades have made NYC a more livable city, they have also changed traffic patterns—something that policymakers now need to address.

2. Congestion Pricing

This is not the first effort to implement congestion pricing. Yet, given the subway’s current state of disrepair and new technologies to aid implementation of congestion pricing, it looks like congestion pricing has a better chance and becoming a reality this time around.

The report suggests that taxis and for-hire vehicles driving in central Manhattan implement surcharges within the next year, and then all trucks and cars would be charged fees in 2020 for vehicles below 60th Street. No fees should be charged until needed repairs are made to the MTA’s subways, trains, and buses. This would ensure people have reliable public transit alternatives before being subjected to new surcharges.

Vehicles will be charged electronically by a system of cameras or transponders, much like the cashless tolling that exists today. This technology was not widely available during earlier efforts to implement congestion pricing, and it may prove the linchpin to getting it done this time.

3. Fix Our Subways (and Other Public Transit Options)

There can be no doubt that our rapidly deteriorating subways require a real fix. And that, in turn, has created a political environment where big ideas can take hold. The good news is that congestion pricing has real potential to raise the necessary funds, though—by its very nature—it will also create more demand for the subways, making those fixes will even more necessary. We think this is a good thing. NYC’s subway system is a unique asset that powers the city and we must do whatever it takes to protect it. It will be particularly important to fix public transit in the outer boroughs and outside of NYC, as the Fix NYC report wisely recommends.

Of note, the Fix NYC report also highlights the progress of the MTA’s Subway Action Plan, which was first unveiled last July. The report says that between June and October 2017, weekday major incidents were down 21 percent, weekday major signal incidents decreased 36 percent, and weekday major power incidents decreased by 50 percent. While we are glad to see this progress, there can be no doubt that our ailing subway system needs real and systemic updates. We are optimistic that congestion pricing can fund those much-needed updates, ensuring that generations to come will continue to benefit from the subway.

4. Increase Enforcement of Existing Traffic Laws and Reform Placards

Another way the report suggests to improve congestion issues in Manhattan is to enforce traffic laws that are already on the books. The panel suggests increasing enforcement of moving violations because “parking violations tend to be less onerous than those associated with moving violations” so it believes enforcing moving violations will change poor driver behavior.

Relatedly, the report suggests reforming the NYC placard program. NYC has issued about 160,000 placards, but often these placards are used illegally and abusers who park illegally contribute to congestion.