So Far Cuomo’s Congestion Pricing “Plan” Is All Sizzle, No Steak

It's not congestion pricing if it doesn't toll the East River bridges.

Gov. Cuomo. Photo: Governor’s Office/Flickr
Gov. Cuomo. Photo: Governor’s Office/Flickr

Andrew Cuomo’s statement to the Times last week that congestion pricing is “an idea whose time has come” set off a wave of optimistic speculation among New Yorkers who care about streets and transit. But the governor has said nothing specific about the congestion pricing plan he has in mind. What little he’s revealed is all sizzle, no steak.

Congestion pricing is one of the single most powerful policies to reduce traffic congestion and speed up transit — especially bus service — and the governor is the one elected official who can singlehandedly make it politically feasible.

The editorial boards at the Times and the Daily News urged Cuomo to adopt a plan along the lines of Move NY, which puts a price on driving across the free East River bridges and 60th Street in Manhattan while reducing tolls on outlying MTA crossings. For-hire trips in the Manhattan congestion zone would be subject to new surcharges.

Like any plan that can reasonably be called “congestion pricing,” Move NY puts a toll cordon around the gridlocked heart of the city. The fact that the cordon applies to all private motor vehicle trips, and there’s no way around it, is what makes it work. If people can still drive into the most congested part of the city at the most congested times of day for free somehow, it’s not congestion pricing.

What Cuomo has been calling “congestion pricing” could very well be something else entirely. Zack Fink at State of Politics reports that “the Cuomo Administration has been signaling to Assembly members that they can do a new pricing plan that does not include East River tolls” and that one representative “says they ‘have heard nothing’ about tolls in this plan.”

There are a number of impostor policies that Cuomo could try to pass off as “congestion pricing” instead: higher peak-hour tolls on MTA crossings, for instance, or incentives for off-peak truck deliveries. These won’t do much to solve New York’s traffic and transit problems. Whatever street space opens up at first will quickly be occupied as motorists figure out the new system and fill the vacuum.

Only a full toll cordon will deliver a substantial long-term reduction in traffic, and with it, the opportunity to vastly improve conditions for surface transit, biking, and walking. (Transportation Alternatives has a petition urging the governor to advance a plan that tolls the East River bridges and a crosstown cordon in Manhattan.)

Cuomo gave a tantalizing quote to the Times last week to relieve the intense public pressure on him to fix a flailing transit system. But the pressure shouldn’t let up now.

Absent more details from the governor, the only reasonable assumption is that he’s still not serious about congestion pricing.

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