A lot of readers had strong feelings about my newsletter on Wednesday, “Why I Welcome New York City’s Congestion Pricing Plan.” So I’m devoting today’s newsletter to excerpts from emails some of you sent in response, with a few comments from me interspersed. Thanks to all of you for the education. As usual, I’m including only people who gave their approval to be quoted.
I’ll start with people who agreed with me, because those are the easy ones. Jon Bonne of Brooklyn wrote: “Huge props on today’s newsletter. It captured all the many (excellent) reasons why this is long overdue and necessary.” He said New York should also charge for on-street parking in more places — that is, by adding meters and parking permit requirements. (I agree, as I wrote in June.)
Seth Wolin of Katonah, N.Y., wrote: “While there is not a perfect solution to the problem, this one is simple and will generally achieve the goals as intended — lower traffic, lower pollution, faster transit times and more resources to upgrade public transportation, hopefully to the degree that ridership increases may also reduce fares.”
Frank Hosticka wrote: “As a resident of downtown Manhattan, a car owner and constant public transportation user, I am fully in agreement with your take on the need for congestion pricing.” He did say he worries about how the money will be spent. “Please stay aware and observant of the windfall monies soon to be generated and their use and actual appropriation for the good of public services.”
Now for the criticisms. Amanda Atlas of Brooklyn wrote that she doesn’t like the idea that once inside the congestion zone, people can drive to and fro all day without paying extra. (I also pointed that out as a flaw.) She also predicted that drivers will park in her neighborhood and take the subway into the congestion zone. “We would be better to start with the goal — is it money for transit, is it pollution control, is it really lowering congestion in Manhattan, is it to allow for more efficient truck deliveries. The questions are not being answered. Right now it looks just like a bad deal for the other boroughs.”
Peter Gordon of Pleasantville, N.Y., wrote: “I have a feeling that Uber and Lyft are clapping and rubbing their hands together with excitement at the thought of this congestion pricing plan helping to clear the streets of regular cars so that their drivers can make more and faster trips. I know that they are being required to add a fee to their rides, but it seems to me a large part of the problem stems from the fact that the city never bothered to regulate their growth the way they did with yellow taxis by imposing a limit on medallions.”
Richard Nebenzahl of Astoria, Queens, wrote: “Why not ban all taxis, Ubers, etc. from the congestion (toll) zone?” He added: “You want me to pay $15 to drop someone off in Manhattan (supposedly polluting the atmosphere for a few minutes) but it’s OK for a taxi to ride around Manhattan all day merrily polluting for maybe 24/7. Please tell me why I should be happy about this.”
It’s true that taxis and for-hire vehicles account for a lot of the traffic in Manhattan. In 2018, they made up 52 percent of vehicles in what will be the congestion zone, according to the New York City Department of Transportation, as cited by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s blue-ribbon panel. But their number has actually declined by 25,000 since then, according to the Taxi and Limousine Commission. To discourage Uber and Lyft from putting cars on the streets that drive around empty, the commission guarantees drivers a minimum pay level. Flooding the streets with unneeded cars would hurt Uber and Lyft’s profits. Also, the plan is for taxis and for-hire vehicles to pay a per-trip congestion charge instead of a once-daily toll.
Joel Bloom of Yonkers, N.Y., added the city’s bike lanes as a culprit. He wrote: “Why isn’t there a license fee for every bicyclist, like there is for motorists?” And like many others, he said that the M.T.A. wastes money. “The boondoggle of the Second Avenue subway line, the over-budget connection of the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal, and the lack of oversight to overtime being paid to M.T.A. workers are examples why the M.T.A. can’t be trusted with the funds coming from congestion pricing.”
I wish I had mentioned the undeniable fact that the M.T.A. tends to overspend its budgets. The connection between the Long Island Rail Road and Grand Central, which opened a year ago, is impressive, but it was expensive: $11.1 billion. In 2017, The Times reported that an accountant found that 200 people who were being paid $1,000 a day to work on the tunnel seemed to have no reason to be there. (They were laid off.)
Readers tended to be pretty cynical about the city’s intentions. Bruce Grossberg is a member of the transportation committee of a community board in central Queens. Speaking for himself, rather than in that official capacity, he wrote, “I continue to see congestion pricing as a land grab masquerading as a transportation policy.” He predicted it will mainly benefit Manhattanites. “In return, the residents of the outer boroughs get a promise that perhaps, maybe, somewhere over the rainbow, the revenues from congestion pricing will be sufficient to implement a capital plan” — that is, investment in mass transit.
Susan Paston, who lives inside the congestion zone, wrote: “If residents of the wealthy Upper East Side and Upper West Side don’t have to pay, neither should we; traffic from 60th Street to 90th Street is more congested than traffic below 30th Street. In addition, in another presumably unintended consequence, many or most of the physicians in private practice in our downtown residential areas are said to be looking for office space above 60th Street for fear their out-of-zone patients will find new doctors rather than pay to enter the zone.”
“Every city that has ever introduced congestion pricing improved mass transit first. New York City didn’t,” Steve Ross of Revere, Mass., wrote. “Every major city sharply restricts taxi cruising in its congested midtown. New York City does not and will not.” He added, “My prediction for New York City: Just another tax, and don’t expect any subway improvements.”
Tim Schwartz of Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J., wrote: “Unless mass transit is convenient for everybody, including New Jersey and Connecticut residents, I’m against the congestion tax. I’m also sure the M.T.A. will still be in financial trouble and searching for more revenue streams.”
I also heard concerns that the policy could hurt people with disabilities who have trouble using public transit. While the 2019 state law that mandated congestion pricing exempts vehicles transporting people with disabilities, it didn’t define the category. The M.T.A.’s blue-ribbon panel advised against fully exempting disabled people from the congestion charge, saying they are already eligible for transport services, as well as for reimbursement for costs of transportation to medical appointments through flexible spending accounts and the like. Opposing full exemption, it wrote: “It should be noted that no discounts on other tolled facilities exist today for individuals with medical conditions.” (That’s not going to satisfy everybody.)
I complained in my newsletter that none of the funds raised from the congestion charge would go toward mass transit in New Jersey, such as the PATH trains that go under the Hudson River. Schwartz, from Ho-Ho-Kus, said he agreed with me, but two other readers disagreed. Wolin, from Katonah, wrote, “New Yorkers and anyone else driving into and through New Jersey have been paying tolls on the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike for decades without any of that money going back to the states from which the drivers come.” And Naomi Weisberg Siegel of Pittsburgh, who said she was about to move to Manhattan, wrote that there was no justification for Jersey getting some of the money. “Tolls give the drivers the right to drive on a certain road; that’s what New Jersey drivers get in exchange for their money.”
I stand by my support of congestion pricing in the city, but I do understand people’s objections to it. And I understand those objections better now than I did before the deluge of emails. Thank you for writing!
Quote of the Day
“Stick close to your desks and never go to sea
And you all may be Rulers of the Queen’s Navee!”
— W.S. Gilbert, “H.M.S. Pinafore” (1878)