Traffic Congestion

New York City Was Supposed To Have Congestion Pricing in January. Federally Mandated Environmental Review Pushed the Start Date to 2023.

Federal environmental laws and restrictions on tolling are adding years to the rollout of New York’s congestion pricing program.


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.

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  1. Libertarians outraged that the federal government is usurping the state’s authority to implement abusive, punitive, and unconstitutional laws.

    1. What is unconstitutional about these laws?

      1. Conditioning access to public roads and commons on economic status is a violation of equal protection and probably a whole slew of both local and federal equal access laws and regulations. If you want private toll roads build private toll roads.

        1. All roads should be private. But failing that, those who paid taxes towards maintaining the public roads should have priority. I can see rationale for charging tolls of all drivers for cost of upkeep; local taxpayers can then apply for exemptions and receive passes they can present at the toll booth.

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      2. Racist.

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  2. A state that can make a snap decision resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of seniors, and cannot conduct an EIS in any sort of timeframe, is not a state that is functional, healthy or sane.

    1. Apparently, killing seniors doesn’t violate Federal regulations.

      1. No fake fire extinguishers were used.

  3. Just a preview of how disparate parts of the Federal government, with disparate briefs, will bury projects from the proposed infrastructure bill in mountains of red tape.

    1. But the money will still be spent. On something.

      1. “Government: we turn your worthless tax dollars into valuable votes.”

  4. If you have unvaccinated kids, act like ‘nobody in household’ is vaccinated, experts urge — and more back-to-school advice

    Oh for fuck sakes.

    1. Getting up and making sure the kids backpacks are packed unvaccinated… Getting my unvaccinated kids out of bed on time so they can make the bus unvaccinated… Making breakfast, unvaccinated, so that my unvaccinated kids have something to eat before they get on the bus… Checking to make sure the unvaccinated kids brushed their teeth using toothpaste that doesn’t have any mRNA or deactivated virus particles in it… Totally just acting like we’re a normal, unvaccinated family because one or more members of our may or may not be vaccinated… Also, none of us are man-eating wolf monsters either. Just don’t go in the basement.

      Not entirely sure what it’s supposed to accomplish, but I admit I would enjoy foisting FUD on the Karens.

    2. So, act like it’s 2 years ago?

    3. As always, there’s a clear solution:

      Out of an abundance of caution, and if it will save even one child or one teacher, close down the public schools and return the funds to the taxpayers so they can afford a good quality PC and a high speed internet connection, enabling students to find the best teachers online.

  5. How about letting the State and Local entities build their own highway systems, using the tax money that now goes to the Feds? No federal monies — no control. Wasn’t there a time in the not-so-distant past when that was norm? Ninety percent (or thereabouts) of such infrastructure is funded this way, even today. Why not make it ninety-nine percent?

    1. That hasn’t been the norm since before Eisenhower.

  6. 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.

    And yet no one has been able to explain to me how these policies aren’t racist.

    1. that’s so cute you think progressives actually give a damn about that

      all they care about is power. That’s it

    2. Racist just means “progressives don’t want this”

      Progressives want this, ergo its not racist

      1. That’s a damn good way to put it.

    3. Suppose you explain to us how they are.

  7. I suggest charging those exiting NYC more. They may not be coming back.

    1. This might also have the effect of keeping New Yorkers in New York, which is a valuable public service. Think of the greater good.

  8. They need help pricing people out of New York City?!

    Because markets are better than politicians at making decisions about everything, doesn’t mean people in markets don’t make bad choices–and I’m still not sure I understand the attraction of New York City to people outside the financial industry, the arts, and a few other industries.

    I see condos asking tens of millions of dollars in New York City, and they’re about the same size as the average person’s home everywhere else in the country. They have some really nice restaurants in NYC, but you can find good food in the rest of the country, too–pretty much everywhere. Ever watch an episode of No Reservations?

    I’d rather have a few million dollars and live anywhere else in the country than be a billionaire stuck living in New York City.

    My brother used to work on Wall Street, and he said that after a while, you start to forget that the rest of the world isn’t like New York City. When you first show up, it’s like you’re a lobster thrown in boiling water, but people who grew up there are like when they slowly turn up the heat.

    They don’t want to jump out of the pot until the water starts boiling, but the people who make the jump because they’re finally priced out of the market probably find that their quality of life dramatically improves after they move to Asheville, Austin, or Spokane. I once worked for a hospital in which almost everyone was laid off except for me. I thought I was the lucky one–until we had a reunion party, and I found out that they all had new and better jobs in better places. The lucky ones were the people who got pushed out.

    How often can you go to the Met or MOMA?

    People say New York has a certain energy, but I think that’s mostly the smell of piss. Tijuana smells like that, too, and the rent is cheap. Your baseline in New York City is not the norm. The American norm is much higher than it is in New York City, and if you can do whatever you do elsewhere in the country, you should probably move.

    1. New York is tolerable if you are a billionaire. You have a nice apartment way up on some tall building, a limo with a driver, and maybe a helicopter . You won’t smell too much piss.
      I can’t guess how anyone else can stand the place for more than a few days.

    2. In the words of Hank Williams, “Send me to Heck or New York City, it’d be about the same to me”.

  9. Pot, Mexicans, Ass-sex, food trucks, bail reform and yes, even open borders…DESPAIR! reason‘s first and greatest love will always be for transportation central-planning.

  10. Meanwhile, Australia is busy implementing and beta testing the new iNazi pogrom, complete with requirements that houses label their front doors with viral and vax status.
    Coming to your anglosphere nation in just 4-6 months!

    1. Oh, and not a word from Reason


    Wait…. the ACLU is suing to take away people’s right to choose to not wear a mask and FOR the state to have the authority to force masks onto people not wanting to wear them?

    BREAKING: We’re suing to end South Carolina’s ban on mask requirements in schools, with Disability Rights South Carolina, Able South Carolina, and parents.
    Students with disabilities are effectively being excluded from public schools because of this ban.
    Courts must intervene.”

    1. Ok, *checks box* the ACLU would have also turned Anne Frank in to the Nazis.

  12. to be fair, with everyone leaving town and/or working from home, the congestion problem isn’t as bad as it used to be.

    1. It’s really a wealth redistribution scheme.

      The cost of congestion should be measured in your time wasted while stuck in traffic. But the government can’t make money from wasted time.

      1. I would happily pay a fee if all drivers in my city were relegated to public transport, leaving the roads empty for me and maybe one other guy (who’s most assuredly from out of state) who actually knows how to drive. I swear if I have to sit behind one more asshole who doesn’t know how to make an unprotected left at a light…

  13. Oh. Look.

    Reason Magazine advocating totalitarian authoritarianism.


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