New York's congestion pricing program has hit another bump in the road. On Friday, state transportation officials said that it's going to take 16 months to conduct a federally mandated environmental review of their plan to charge a variable toll to drivers entering lower Manhattan.
"We are operating on an extraordinarily expedited and aggressive environmental review timeframe, yet one that will be painstakingly thorough," said Janno Lieber, acting chair of the state's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), in a Friday press release.
That painstakingly thorough review, the MTA says, will include over 20 public meetings as part of its "robust public outreach" to "environmental justice" communities across the 22 million-person New York City metro area.
Following the completion of this environmental review, the MTA has said it will need another 310 days to set up the physical infrastructure needed to actually toll drivers. That means that New York won't be implementing congestion pricing until 2023 at the earliest.
This is only the latest in a long series of delays for what is supposed to be the nation's first congestion pricing program.
When the New York Legislature approved the program back in April 2019 with the intention of improving traffic flows in lower Manhattan while raising money for repairing the city's aging subway system, the hope was to have everything up and running by January 2021.
Keeping congestion pricing in limbo has been the need for New York to get federal approval of the program, which has, in turn, triggered the awesome delaying power of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Federal law generally prohibits tolling of existing federal-aid highway lanes, something New York's congestion pricing program would do. In order to get around that prohibition, New York needs to be accepted into the Value Pricing Pilot Program (VPPP) run by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which allows states to use tolls to reduce congestion.
Because FHWA bureaucrats' signoff is required for New York to participate in that program, that triggers the dreaded NEPA.
NEPA requires federal agencies to prepare documents assessing the impact of their actions for any potential negative impacts they might have on the environment.
Because the law requires so many environmental impacts to be studied, and because it often requires multiple agencies to weigh in during the review process, NEPA documents can take years to put together.
In the case of New York's congestion pricing program, the NEPA process will involve the FHWA, as well as the MTA, and the departments of Transportation for both the state and the city. These agencies will have to study the impact on transit use, air quality, traffic congestion across the New York metro area, which the MTA says will require the use of "a dozen different models and data sets."
NEPA also allows third parties to sue if they think a project hasn't been studied thoroughly enough. To avoid lawsuits, agencies spend a lot of time conducting public outreach and preparing lengthy "litigation-proof" documents. Hence the 20 public meetings and "robust" outreach that MTA and other agencies are planning.
Making matters worse is that NEPA also requires differing levels of scrutiny depending on the likely environmental impacts of a project. The most stringent level of NEPA review, an environmental impact statement (EIS), takes 4.5 years on average to complete. Less onerous environmental assessments can still take years.
Determining what level of environmental review New York's congestion pricing program would require led to nearly two years of delays and a lot of finger-pointing between the Trump administration (who accused the MTA of withholding information it needed to make a decision) and New York state officials (who said Trump was slow-walking things for political reasons).
Finally, in March 2021, the Biden administration said that only a more modest environmental assessment was required.
That should have been good news for congestion pricing advocates. The MTA had previously told the feds that it would only need about three months to perform an environmental assessment.
The Trump administration had also implemented streamlining tweaks to NEPA regulations in September 2020 that required environmental assessments to be completed in no more than a year. However, officials can also override that time limit, which the FHWA has apparently done.
"I don't think it should take so long on a project like this that is not adding any new pavement, it's just adding tolling. From an environmental perspective, they should not have to do this," says Baruch Feigenbaum, assistant director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation (the think tank which publishes this website).
Some level of community outreach is appropriate, but that should be able to be completed in the three-month timeline MTA originally outlined, notes Feigenbaum. "This highlights that there is still a lot of work to be done on the NEPA process."
The infrastructure bill working its way through Congress does include some modest reforms to NEPA, including an extension of a temporary program that encourages agencies to conduct their environmental reviews consecutively, rather than sequentially.
Lifting federal restrictions on tolling existing highways would be another way to speed the implementation of congestion pricing programs by letting states and localities bypass the NEPA process entirely.
The infrastructure bill does include a program to boost the number of privately operated toll roads in the country, but it's a contradictory mess.
Even if New York didn't need the feds' approval for congestion pricing, there's still a good chance government officials or other interest groups would in some way be sabotaging the process. Imposing tolls on drivers for something they used to do for free is a politically fraught process that has everyone under the sun arguing for their own exemption.
The MTA has yet to assemble a Traffic Mobility Review Board that will determine who gets these exemptions.
New York's new governor, Kathy Hochul, also appears to be in no rush to get the job done. Her spokesperson told the New York Times that while she's supported congestion pricing in the past, "the pace and timing is something she will need to evaluate further given the constantly changing impact of Covid-19 on commuters."
These delays are a shame. Traffic congestion is costly. The more time people spend idling in traffic, the less time they have to do anything else. Cities as a whole lose out on the economic activity that's hindered by long travel times.
This is a particularly acute problem in New York. Travel speeds in lower Manhattan were averaging between 5 and 6 mph prior to the pandemic. The New York metro region as a whole has the highest percentage of people in the country with a commute over 90 minutes.
Cities like London, Singapore, and Stockholm have successfully eliminated gridlock in their city centers with congestion pricing. Doing the same in New York is proving to be a bigger lift.