Traffic Congestion

Everyone Thinks New York City's Congestion Tolls Should Apply to Someone Else

From cops to commercial truckers, everyone wants to be exempt from NYC's congestion pricing policy.



One of satirical publication The Onion's finer moments was its 2000 article "Report: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others" which expertly poked fun at the fact that while many Americans like the idea of public transit, they're less than keen on using it themselves.

Something similar is playing out in New York City, where local politicians and interest groups are arguing that the city's new congestion pricing tolls—which will charge drivers a flat fee to enter lower Manhattan—may or may not be a good policy, but certainly shouldn't apply to their constituency.

On Monday, Patrick Lynch, president of the New York City Police Benevolent Association, penned an op-ed in the New York Daily News arguing that off-duty police officers should be exempt from the new tolls.

"We shouldn't have to pay a toll every time we report for duty," wrote Lynch, arguing that police officers "are often required to report for duty at times and locations that are not adequately served by any form of mass transit" meaning they're going to be stuck driving to work, and thus paying tolls.

New York City Councilman Joe Borelli (R–Staten Island) made the same point when he tweeted out Lynch's article, saying that not just cops and first responders, but all civil servants should be exempt from the new tolls.

"Crappy that some firefighters, cops, [sanitation workers], nurses et al working odd hours get $2500 less than those not in [Manhattan]. Or we could just scrap congestion pricing," wrote Borelli.

Already a few exemptions have been enshrined in New York's congestion pricing policy—which was passed as part of the state budget last week—including carveouts for drivers taking limited-access highways through Manhattan, emergency vehicles (which, fair), and Manhattan residents earning less than $60,000 a year.

Who else might warrant special exemptions will now be decided by a new Traffic Mobility Review Board organized under the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA)—the state-run agency responsible for running most public transit in New York City. This new board is also empowered to set the price of these congestion tolls.

Legislators punting on these crucial details has kicked off a flurrying of lobbying from officials arguing, like Borelli and Lynch, that they too should not be forced to pay the new tolls.

Hear State Sen. James Sanders (D–Queens) telling constituents in a newsletter that "More work needs to be done to lessen the impact on Queens' motorists."

It's a similar story for commercial truckers, with one industry spokesperson telling Bloomberg "we feel very strongly that commercial vehicles should be exempt—they provide a critical service to New York City." New Jersey's Gov. Phil Murphy (D) likewise demanded that commuters using the George Washington Bridge be exempt from the new tolls.

(See this Curbed article for a longer list of people looking for a special congestion pricing carve-out.)

In part, these calls for an increasing number of exemptions are the New York legislature's own doing, by both declining to hash out a lot of policy specifics about the new congestion pricing policy, and also by not dedicating any of the new toll revenue to improving or expanding the road network. This gives drivers a legitimate gripe that their money is being taken only to be spent on other modes of travel they don't use.

This also shows the inherent problems of trying to make the sensible policy of congestion pricing a political reality. Most everyone can get behind the idea of congestion-free roadways. Few like the idea of having to pay for that benefit.

The trouble is that the more exemptions are made, the less fair and effective New York City's congestion pricing scheme will become. Less fair in that every carveout will in effect privilege one group's transportation needs over another. Less effective in that the fewer drivers the new tolls apply to, the less those tolls will do to reduce gridlock.

This is a problem that's hardly unique to congestion pricing (see our exemption-riddled income tax code for example). Nevertheless, most transit experts agree that congestion pricing is the only effective way of reducing traffic congestion.

New York, by being one of the first places in the United States to give this policy a go, can serve as a model for the policy. Depending on the number of exemptions it makes, it could also serve as a model of what not to.