This Is Happening: Feds Let MTA Do Simpler Environmental Review of Congestion Pricing

Congestion pricing: an idea whose time is here.
Congestion pricing: an idea whose time is here.

The Era of No Malarkey has come to New York public transportation.

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced on Tuesday that it would require the MTA to do a less-intensive environmental assessment before implementing congestion pricing, ending a years-long logjam erected by the Trump Administration. The environmental assessment is a lighter, quicker version of a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement.

“The FHWA looks forward to assisting New York … on this important and precedent-setting project,” said Acting Federal Highway Administrator Stephanie Pollack.

MTA Chairman and CEO Pat Foye said that the agency is ready to move fast now that its received its long-sought guidance on environmental review.

“With this guidance on an environmental assessment now in hand, the MTA is ready to hit the ground running to implement the Central Business District Tolling Program,” Foye said in a press release. “We are already working on preliminary design for the roadway toll system and infrastructure, and we look forward to working with our colleagues at the Federal Highway Administration to conduct the review and broad public outreach so that we can move forward with the remainder of the program as soon as possible.”

A full environmental impact statement might have taken a year to undertake, but according to documents the MTA sent to the Federal Highway Administration in 2019, the agency believed it could finish an environmental assessment in just three months.

The timelines for an environmental assessment and environmental impact statement that the MTA gave to the US DOT in 2019.
The timelines for an environmental assessment and environmental impact statement that the MTA gave to the US DOT in 2019.

Last year, Michael Gerrard, an expert in environmental federal review processes, said that three months was aggressive, but not impossible. Still, he cautioned that “these processes typically take considerably longer.”

According to the press release announcing the guidance, the assessment is supposed to also involve input from two states that neighbor New York to best “analyze traffic volumes and air quality impacts of the proposed tolling program.”

Per the FHWA, there must be coordination and public involvement that engages stakeholders from all three states — New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut — affected by the plan to toll drivers entering the central business district of Manhattan. But that’s a standard request — it’s 23 U.S.C. Section 139 (Efficient environmental reviews for project decision-making).

Mayor de Blasio said he was not concerned that suburban stakeholders — whose leaders have called congestion pricing a new tax on commuters — would ruin congestion pricing, which, he reminded, will raise billions for investment in better public transit.

“We have to listen to everyone and a lot of times when you get that input it helps you do things a lot better,” de Blasio told reporters on Tuesday. “But let’s face it, New York City is the economic engine of the state of the New York, the metropolitan area, for the United States of America. The GDP for New York City rivals some of the biggest counties in the world. All of that comes back to the buses and subways that are the lifeblood, and when they’re working well, everything else works, and it takes real resources to make that happen. I think of this one in the investment category, this is everyone helping to ensure this city works for everyone, not just for the five boroughs but for the entire metropolitan area. We’ve seen congestion pricing work in other places in the world, and I’m convinced this is a way forward.”

The mayor said he had spoken to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg last month and highlighted the need for fast action on congestion pricing. Speaker Corey Johnson had also bade the feds to get moving.

The ruling from the federal government comes two years after the MTA actually sought federal approval for congestion pricing, which it needed because parts of the traffic cordon are set around roads that have received federal money in the past. Federal law states that without a waiver, roads built with federal money can’t be tolled without federal clearance, but the Trump administration refused to tell the MTA what kind of environmental review would be necessary.

New York’s congestion pricing plan would be the first in the nation, but other cities, including Los Angeles and Seattle, have been discussing variable pricing plans that may also require federal review.

By state law, the congestion pricing toll has to be set up in such a way that raises $1 billion per year for the MTA. That money is supposed to be bonded out to provide $15 billion for the MTA’s historic $51 billion 2020-2024 capital plan.

Transit advocates hailed the long overdue forward momentum and called on the MTA to finish the assessment fast enough to at least start the traffic toll in 2022.

“[We] welcome the Biden administration’s prompt decision to order an environmental assessment of congestion pricing. This accelerated public review will expedite essential new revenue to make New York’s subway system reliable and accessible,” said Riders Alliance Executive Director Betsy Plum. “Gov. Cuomo must now complete the assessment as quickly as possible so the MTA can start congestion pricing with no new special interest exemptions in 2022.”

Others greeted it with the correct enthusiastic verbiage.

“Today’s decision on an environmental assessment, allowing congestion pricing to finally move ahead, is a great step for riders and our region,” said Lisa Daglian, the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “Once implemented, we can look forward to achieving the 21st Century transportation system our region and its riders deserve. Our thanks go out to Secretary Buttigieg and the Biden Administration for this momentous decision.

Street safety advocates called congestion pricing the key to making streets for people and not cars.

“If we want our streets to prioritize people, not cars, congestion pricing is key,” said Transportation AlternativesExecutive Director Danny Harris. “Congestion pricing will make our neighborhoods healthier, our transit better, and our city fairer. We are thankful that the Biden administration has given congestion pricing the green light. Now we must make sure that the program launches without further delay, and to its fullest potential.”

Other advocates reminded the MTA to appoint the Traffic Mobility Review Board, the panel that’s supposed to recommend the rules around congestion pricing, including how high the toll is and who gets exemptions from it, and that TMRB meetings had to follow the state’s Open Meeting Laws.

“Reminder that even if MTA’s Traffic Mobility Review Board is advisory, it must follow the Open Meetings Law in recommending tolling charges per an opinion from the NYS Committee on Open Government, which in the COVID era likely means webcasting meetings,” tweeted good government mavens Reinvent Albany.

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