Move NY Campaign Says Toll Reform Can Bypass Albany — Is City Hall Listening?

A legal scholar says NYC has the authority to toll its own roads and bridges, which could raise revenue for transit.

A city-enacted version of the Move NY toll reform plan would cut traffic and improve bus service, but Mayor de Blasio, shown here talking up his ferry system, has expressed no interest in it. Photo: Michael Appleton/NYC Mayor’s Office
A city-enacted version of the Move NY toll reform plan would cut traffic and improve bus service, but Mayor de Blasio, shown here talking up his ferry system, has expressed no interest in it. Photo: Michael Appleton/NYC Mayor’s Office

Move NY takes its congestion-charge campaign to City Hall today, with testimony contending that New York City has legal authority to toll its own roads and bridges. The group will also outline a “home rule” version of its toll-reform plan that the City Council and the mayor can enact through legislation without approval from the state legislature or the governor.

The Move NY testimony, to be submitted at a council transportation committee hearing, in effect refutes a half-century of received wisdom holding that congestion pricing for New York City must be navigated through Albany. It is the product of meticulous legal scholarship by Roderick (Rick) Hills Jr., the William T. Comfort III professor of law at NYU Law School, tracing the origins of an overlooked 1957 amendment to the state vehicle and traffic law, VTL Section 1642(a)(4), which provides that cities with over a million residents (i.e., New York City) may impose “tolls, taxes, [and] fees … for the use of the highway or any of its parts where the imposition thereof is authorized by law.”

Professor Hills will be joined by Move NY campaign director Alex Matthiessen, who will outline an abbreviated version of the group’s ambitious toll-reform plan. The “home rule” version unveiled today employs at-speed digital tolling to charge autos $2.75 — the price of a subway or bus ride — to enter and leave the Manhattan Central Business District, i.e., $5.50 for a round-trip. Multi-axle trucks pay higher rates but they and other commercial vehicles are charged for no more than one round-trip per day.

Matthiessen will explain that in lieu of the entry and exit fee, for-hire vehicles (yellow and green cabs and app-based services such as Uber and Lyft) will pay per miles and minutes driven within the “taxi exclusion zone” south of 110th Street (on the West Side) and 96th Street (East Side). These FHV surcharges are designed to counteract rising congestion that was ascribed to rapidly growing use of Uber vehicles in a recent major report by transportation consultant (and former NYC DOT senior official) Bruce Schaller. The FHV surcharges also ensure that the biggest share of the congestion charges falls on residents of Manhattan, unlike the 2007-08 Bloomberg toll plan that would have raised the most revenues from residents of Queens and Brooklyn.

Chart: Charles Komanoff
Chart: Charles Komanoff

According to Matthiessen, this home-rule Move NY plan could speed car and truck travel in the Manhattan core by up to 10 percent and also raise at least a billion dollars a year for road and transit improvements. Atop that list could be the Riders Alliance’s proposed “fair fare” to make subway and bus travel affordable for low-income households, at an estimated cost of $215 million a year — a proposal that enjoys majority support in the City Council. The home rule plan’s revenues could also fund more buses, bus-priority lanes, further buildout of Citi Bike and more diligent bridge maintenance.

The “full” Move NY plan has languished in the state legislature. It envisions a higher CBD entry and exit toll, $5.76 in each direction, matching the current toll on the MTA tunnels and major bridges. The higher toll revenue and dedication of revenues to the MTA — which can only be done through state legislation — would enable the authority to lower tolls on its four major bridges by $2.50 in each direction, and on its three minor bridges by $1 each way. The 38-46 percent toll reductions — called a “toll swap” by the plan’s progenitor, former NYC traffic commissioner and renowned transportation planner-engineer “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz — would not be possible under the slimmed-down city version of the plan.

Note: Charles Komanoff’s “Balanced Transportation Analyzer” showing the inputs and outputs of the city version of the Move NY plan may be downloaded here. Komanoff is not formally associated with the Move NY campaign.

  • dpecs

    Honestly a “home-rule” plan also succeeds under the idea that the money stays in NYC (as opposed to being state-controlled and likely just going in to the General Fund). I think the biggest criticism of MoveNY is that it could potentially be used to fund road projects in, say, Utica (rather than transit on Utica Avenue), and if it can be done solely in the City Council I think that assuages those concerns.

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    That VTL provision sounds like it may well have been written for this exact reason.

  • redbike

    Great proposal working around Albany’s refusal to address this issue.

    It’s unclear whether this proposal extends to include the currently-free Harlem River bridges.

    Mayor De Blasio has consistently opposed any / all flavors of tolling the currently-free East River bridges. Are there any credible mayoral challengers who support tolling the bridges?

    Has anyone taken the temperature of City Council members on this issue? Linking new tolls to the “fair fare” is brilliant!

  • Vooch

    what are the 22,000 private car drivers going to do that commute daily within Manhatten ? LOL

    infamous chart showing how private cars reduced east river bridge through put by orders of magnitude.

  • sbauman

    There’s a problem with the interpretation that gives NYC the right to charge tolls. The question revolves about the difference between “local law” and “law.” A reasonable interpretation would assume the former to be one enacted by the locality, e.g. passed by the NYC Council and signed by the Mayor, and the latter to be one enacted by New York State, e.g. passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor.

    The first paragraph, which includes enumerated item 4, refers to: “local law, ordinance, order, rule, regulation or health code provision…” One would assume in this context that “local” is modifying “law”, “ordinance”, “order, “rule”, “regulation” and “health code provision”

    Item 4 of the enumeration is: “Charging of tolls, taxes, fees, licenses or permits for the use of the highway or any of its parts, where the imposition thereof is authorized by law.” The “law” in item 4 does not have the “local” qualifier.

    The interpretation is that, if a “law” (enacted by NYS) authorizes imposition of tolls, then NYC may enact them with a “local law.” This is in essence the existing “home rule” limitation to what NYC can enact.

  • mfs

    I don’t think Hills would make that kind of rookie mistake. There have to be several other provisions of law that interact here and not just this section. Posting the memo would be appreciated once it becomes available.

  • Jesse

    Agree. Just based on that section, I can’t understand the Move NY interpretation. It seems like the statute is making a distinction between “law” and “local law”. Item 4 is the only one of the enumerated items with the “authorized by law” limitation. Your reading seems like the most likely one. I would like to know Hills’ argument. Is there some legislative history or case law I am missing?

  • HamTech87

    Much as I’d like to see this happen, I fear Cuomo will Fox News De Blasio’s ass if he went ahead with it.



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