Feds Start to Break the Congestion Pricing Logjam

Congestion
Congestion

The U.S. Department of Transportation now says it will prioritize New York’s congestion pricing plan — a sudden change from an agency that had willfully and without explanation blocked the central business district tolling proposal that is seen as both a key to keeping transit in good repair and reducing congestion, pollution and productivity loss in Manhattan.

Under President Trump, the US DOT refused to allow state officials to move ahead on congestion pricing, which passed the state legislature in 2019, but could not be rolled out without a federally mandated environmental review. But that review could not start without guidance from Trump’s DOT Secretary Elaine Chao, who never gave it, despite repeated calls from the governor and the mayor (and Gridlock Sam!).

But late last week, the Federal Highway Administration told Law360 that the agency “is making New York’s congestion pricing plan a priority,” the outlet reported.

“It will take a closer look at the topic so it can give more guidance in a timely manner,” the agency told the legal affairs website.

No other information was provided, but the Law360 report dovetailed nicely with comments made by US DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg in an off-the-record session with America’s transportation reporters on Feb. 9. Though Streetsblog can’t quote the secretary verbatim, he has previously suggested that his agency would no longer see car drivers’ convenience as the sole mission.

Those comments came after City Council Speaker Corey Johnson wrote to Buttigieg specifically to push for congestion pricing, calling the as-yet-unset tolls “absolutely vital to the city’s short- and long-term recovery from COVID-19.”

After initial publication of this story, Federal Highway Administration spokesman Doug Hecox got back to us. We had asked the following questions (Hecox’s answer follows each):

  1. Has the FHWA made congestion pricing a priority or changed the way it classifies that way it thinks about congestion pricing? “FHWA believes it is one of the options that states and local officials can explore,” Hecox said.
  2. If so, what does that mean? “It may not be right for every community, but it seems to have worked for London and several other cities,” Hecox said. “We recognize that congestion management strategies are not a one-size-fits-all solution, which is why we consider it one of many options.”
  3. When can NYS expect to see some guidance on the kind of environmental review it should conduct? “We are currently working on that, and hope to be getting back with New York shortly,” Hecox said.

Gov. Cuomo’s office did not get back to us (point of information: it never does).

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