Coming Soon To Every Major City Near You: Manhattan's Brand New "Congestion Toll"

New York City is set to become the litmus test for the rest of the nation whether or not a "congestion toll" will help stop gridlock and raise money for certain cities, according to the Wall Street Journal.

With this weekend's passage of a New York mansion tax, platic bag ban and congestion toll, drivers in the Big Apple will now pay a fee to enter a zone in Manhattan's business district with the expectation that it could reduce traffic in a highly congested area. At the same time, the toll is expected to generate much needed cash for the city that it will use to fund bureaucratic redtape and corruption to help restore its infrastructure. The toll, whose terms have yet to be determined, is set to be implemented in 2021.

Lawmakers have established the congestion zone in Manhattan’s business district, south of 60th Street. The MTA will be responsible for operating and maintaining the system, as well as setting pricing. Last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo suggested a flat, per day fee of $11.52 for cars and $25.34 for trucks. However, the budget has directed that these numbers be variable and the specifics are still up in the air.

The congestion in Manhattan is so notoriously bad that walking and riding bikes is often quicker than catching a bus or driving. Between construction, illegally parked vehicles, delivery vehicles and 80,000 new Uber and Lyft vehicles, it’s near impossible to get around Manhattan.

More importantly, Corinne Kisner, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials said: "New York City’s experience will be an important precedent for the conversations happening in other U.S. cities.”


The method for implementation of the toll may also be something new. Traditional tollbooths may be left behind in favor of transponders and license plate readers. Incidentally, despite being the first city in the United States to implement such a tax, New York is still "more than a decade" behind cities like London and Stockholm, who use these types of congestion tolls.

Although several U.S. cities and states are exploring pricing proposals, they remain years behind New York. Some officials say a lack of familiarity with the concept of charging vehicles to enter a city zone as well as a lack of political will remain stumbling blocks

Earlier this year, an environmental working group set up by Boston’s mayor also recommended a $5 fee for every trip that ended or started in a certain zone in Boston's most congested area. Chris Osgood, Boston's chief of streets, said that cordon pricing wasn't an option. “We’ve been really focused on the levers we have at hand,” he said. 

Traffic gridlock is not unique to NYC: other U.S. cities are dealing with similar reasons for their traffic snarls, according to several studies that show "a booming economy and low gas prices have spurred higher employment, increased car ownership and greater demand for goods and services that create yet more backups."

As the WSJ notes, while congestion dipped nationwide after the 2008 financial crisis, by 2014 almost every town and city suffered longer travel times than pre-2008 levels, according to a 2015 urban mobility report from Texas A&M Transportation Institute. It has worsened since then, said the report’s author David Schrank: “It’s all relative,” he said. “Whether you’re in Poughkeepsie or Manhattan, you think you have congestion.”

Although congestion may be widespread, its severity differs greatly from city to city, said Trevor Reed, an analyst for transportation analytics firm INRIX. America’s most heavily congested cities tend to be among its oldest and most densely populated, Mr. Reed said.

Boston and Washington, D.C., logged the most time wasted in traffic last year, at 164 hours and 155 hours per driver respectively, according to an analysis published by INRIX in February. New York City had the slowest downtown business district speeds, clocking in at 9 mph, followed by San Francisco and Philadelphia, both at 10 mph.

Some cities, such as Philadelphia, have tried to tackle congestion with parking violation blitzes. States such as Florida, Texas and Virginia, have instituted demand-based tolls on highways that rise during busy times of the day. But so far none have come as close as New York to implementing a cordon-based toll.

As such, the city's ongoing experiment will become a benchmark for the rest of the nation: if "successful" - however one defines success in this case - expect most other major US metro areas to jump on board. Already several California groups are studying congestion pricing among a raft of measures to reduce traffic in and around Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The Southern California Association of Governments, a metropolitan planning organization, released a report March 28, suggesting a $4 fee for cars to enter part of West Los Angeles during peak periods in the morning and evening.

Tilly Chang, executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, which is also studying congestion pricing, said west coast cities don’t have a transit crisis on the same scale as New York’s.

The urgency behind the NY experiment is driven by a secondary consideration: boosting municipal revenue collections: although NYC traffic has grown worse in recent years, the congestion-pricing debate has been dominated by the need to raise revenue for the subway, which has suffered a steep decline in reliability despite rising prices.

“The subway crisis creates an acute sense of need,” said Bruce Schaller, a transportation consultant and a veteran of previous New York City congestion pricing battles. ”The timing is everything to politics and having a good economy and a bad problem is a good time to try and solve it."