By: Melissa Stanek
Photos: NBT Archives
On March 31, 2019, New York City approved its $175,000 2020 budget including a plan to implement congestion pricing below 60th Street in Manhattan. While details continue to be finalized, congestion pricing is expected to begin as early as 2021. This future rulemaking has sent private buses, truck owners and more into a race for exemption from this daily fee.
Congestion pricing is a form of demand-side economy that turns an eye towards controlling street equity in the hopes of paying for the estimated $40 billion needed to improve and repair the “death spiral” of New York City’s public transport systems, including their notorious subways and buses. The fee is daily and is expected to be $11.50 per car and $25 per truck. There is yet no information on the charge for private buses. These efforts should limit traffic congestion and finance the city’s hefty pubic transport repairs, while also limiting greenhouse emissions.
Like any move of the government, congestion pricing has its advocates and naysayers. Everyone wants better public transportation, but no one wants to pay for it. Those already planned to be exempt are emergency vehicles, vehicles carrying the disabled, drivers who live in the congestion zone and drivers who use the West Side Highway and Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive to pass through Manhattan. Those who still seek exemptions include the police, motorcycle riders, commercial truckers, New Jerseyans, private bus operators and more. The arguments for the hopeful are obvious. People do not want to be charged for going where their job takes them. Still, it does not appear any exemptions will fall in favor of private bus operators. One of New York City’s inspirations is Stockholm, Sweden, which accomplished clearer streets and air by implementing congestion pricing in 2007. Stockholm exempted too many vehicles and fell short in reaching its projected budget by 14 percent. Congestion pricing for New York City has projected a revenue of $1.5 billion, a far cry less than the city’s repair bill, which means every penny counts. Seeing this financial failure overseas may create tightfistedness in Governor Andrew Cuomo, the man in control of exemptions and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
If New York City allows any exemptions, the likelihood of private bus and truck operators finding leniency is slim to none. The FixNYC study, one of the studies used to help guide New York City’s traffic project, cites privately-owned buses as “detrimental” to street equity, especially in targeted Lower Manhattan. The study alleges that the number of tour buses in New York City has exploded. Many believe the high number of charter and tour buses is a problem because (due to limited parking opportunities) drivers are forced to lap around town waiting for a space, thus creating more traffic congestion. Others complain that private buses distract from public buses – a recipient of the foreseen revenue.
Those in favor of allowing private buses exemption, like the Bus Association of New York (BANY) or Bus4NYC, believe that buses are an easy scapegoat. Due to their size, they only appear to clog the streets. BANY also believes making buses pay a daily fee would only force bus operators to raise fares, discouraging new patrons. This would prevent a reduction in traffic congestion as would-be bus users remain in their cars.
New Jersey politicians threaten to make the situation increasingly bleak. Seeming to take the plan personally, they vow to fight a system they view as tolling commuters twice. Steven Fulop, mayor of Jersey City, has even suggested that New Yorkers traveling to New Jersey should face a fee as well. New Jersey Representative Josh Gottheimer described congestion pricing as New York physically beating up New Jersey.
Congestion pricing, however, is not targeting New Jersey commuters, but rather anyone who wants to drive a private vehicle into Lower Manhattan. Knowledge of congestion pricing’s objectivity, however, does not make it an easier pill to swallow. Some New Jersey citizens online have even vowed to never return to Manhattan. The power is clearly in New York’s hands, as the rage and sworn abstinence still achieves what congestion pricing is meant to do – clear the roads. The cry from New Jerseyans may as well fall on deaf ears. The same can be said of other groups hoping for exemption. Unless, they can prove they are of more worth to New York City present than absent, it is unlikely they will achieve exception If congestion pricing can be done smoothly, New York may need to look towards London’s example. London, another inspiration for New York City, has used congestion pricing since 2003 to great success. Over the first three years, nitrous oxide declined 17 percent and air particulates dropped 24 percent. Street congestion fell 25 percent, and collision numbers plummeted 40 percent over a decade. Government officials in London drafted exemptions for emergency and military vehicles, motorcycles and mopeds, public-service vehicles, vehicles operated by disabled people, ultra low-emission vehicles and vehicles containing nine or more seats. This means that nearly every special interest group hoping for exemptions in New York City would have found it in London. Still, this hope for private commercial vehicles remains intangible and uncertain. How congestion pricing will affect private bus operators is yet to be seen.
Soon, New York City’s coveted Lower Manhattan area may have clearer roads, a public transport system on the mend and cleaner air. Perhaps just as likely, the number of private buses and trucks in Lower Manhattan will dwindle as professional private drivers are forced to find ways to balance new daily fees. What congestion pricing has in store for private buses in New York City can only be speculated upon at this time. Until Governor Cuomo decides who will be exempt, planners can only watch and wait.