Skip to Content
Streetsblog New York City home
Streetsblog New York City home
Log In
Congestion Pricing

Komanoff: What Was Left Unsaid to Congestion Pricing Opponents

Politicians can be diplomatic, but subject matter experts have a responsibility to say the quiet part out loud. Charles Komanoff learned that last Thursday at the latest congestion pricing gripefest.

Photo: Josh Katz (traffic)

Some things are better left unsaid. But that’s for politicians and public servants. Subject matter experts, however, have a responsibility to say the quiet parts out loud.

I learned that last Thursday when I attended a congestion pricing forum at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, where MTA community relations specialists Julia Kite-Laidlaw and Daniel Randell did their best to explain the coming toll to drive into Manhattan below 60th Street. In the face of some continuing criticism, the MTA and electeds — including the moderator, state Sen. Brian Kavanagh — did a good job of keeping the peace. But let’s look at what actually was said … and what should have been.

London’s CP gives zone residents 90% discounts. Why are we facing a full fare? 

Kite-Laidlaw answered with standard MTA talking points: The legislation’s billion-dollar-a-year revenue nut means that a break for any one group requires higher tolls on other drivers. Plus, “The more exemptions we grant, the more diversions there will be through environmental-justice communities.” And, she added, London drivers pay for intrazone trips, but NYC drivers won’t.

Unsaid: London’s zone has just 136,000 inhabitants, which minimizes the revenue cost of London’s 90-percent exemption. New York City, below 60th Street, has 612,000 residents.

The drive from my garage to the highway is too short to toll.

This complaint came up a lot. From a cancer surgeon who lives next to West Street and drives to Jersey. From a Lower East Side resident who “hops onto” the FDR Drive and insists that “Driving a block or two to the highway shouldn’t cost me 15 bucks.”

Kite-Laidlaw replied that “People paying the toll won’t be paying for nothing. They’ll be getting less congestion. In paying the toll, you’ll get a better driving experience.”

Unsaid: The exemption of trips confined to West St and the FDR was written into the 2019 legislation as a concession to through-drivers. It doesn’t mean that your trip doesn’t add to gridlock. Both West Street and the Drive are often congested, warranting a congestion toll. Come to think of it, isn’t FDR congestion the linchpin of Lower East Side residents’ anti-toll litigation? You can’t claim that your highway commute has zero impact and then petition a court to rule that the MTA underestimated it. 

To be fair, the MTA reps know the bad optics of calling out people’s fallacies in public. Still, perhaps next time they can find a gracious way to convey that during peak-toll hours, each minute a car is driven in the zone (including on the highways) slows other drivers by two minutes total, a collective delay costing those drivers two bucks. At that rate, their seemingly innocuous 10 minutes of highway driving imposes $20 of delay costs. So tell me, how is the toll unfair?

Why does the congestion zone extend only to 60th Street? Why not the entire borough?

This pointless question came from the area’s (and my) Council Member Christopher Marte. Kite-Laidlaw rightly pointed out that the zone was prescribed in the 2019 legislation, and perhaps wisely, left it at that. 

Unsaid: Moving the zone boundary would swap tolled trips without diminishing the number. Perhaps worse, it would extend the area and thus expand the number of (untolled) intra-zone car trips. Please also consider that a big rationale for CBD tolling is that the area is saturated with rapid transit. Car trips into the zone from the boroughs have excellent transit alternatives. Not necessarily so for borough trips to uptown areas.

What is being done about toll theft?

This question came from Assembly Member Deborah Glick, a safe-streets stalwart whose Bloomberg-era opposition to congestion pricing has creditably morphed to qualified support. “The MTA is already losing a lot of money due to toll theft at its bridges and tunnels. What is the MTA’s plan?”

Daniel Randell fielded this one, and began by ratifying Glick’s point that toll theft is already stealing from transit since by law, most surplus MTA bridge and tunnel toll revenues go to subways and buses. But he laid an egg by praising MTA police for last year issuing 3,000 toll-cheater summonses (“That’s [only] eight per day!” one attendee interjected) and recovered $4 million in stolen tolls and penalties. Calling toll evasion “a huge problem for us [because] when people [er, drivers] evade that toll, they’re taking from transit” wasn’t the concrete answer folks wanted.

Unsaid: Not much, thanks to Glick’s tenacious questioning. It was great to hear an elected zero in on driver theft without also harping on transit farebeating, especially since the trope of $600 million a year in missing farebox revenue ignores the fact that many of those “free” transit trips are only made because of fare evasion. And this, too: “civilian” New Yorkers detest intentional toll evaders; lower Manhattanites especially because of all the placard-abusing appratchiks. Were the MTA to forcefully pursue toll theft ― as Streetsblog, “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz and the prior governor’s Fix NYC task force (see p. 17) have all demanded seemingly forever ― public perception of congestion pricing might improve.

Casinos, Ubers, felled trees, whatever, are proof of government’s bad faith. 

We come now to the anti-government mashup. “You’re permitting casinos in Manhattan. You’re allowing more Ubers. You chopped down a thousand trees in East River Park. It all goes to show you’re not serious about cutting congestion and pollution. Congestion pricing is a money-grab, pure and simple.”

Sigh. Most of these objections came from folks at the mic. The MTA reps were gone, having gamely fielded questions for over an hour, and so couldn’t point out that those are city government actions with no connection to congestion pricing. But it’s just as well. Much opposition to congestion pricing seems tied to mistrust of government, period. Citing city responsibility would have amplified, not mollified, the complaints.

Let’s start by pointing out that congestion pricing as a pure money play wouldn’t be so terrible. Sure, a tax hike on billionaires would be terrific, as would collecting the stock transfer tax or surtaxing supertall pied-a-terres. Yet other worthy claimants to those revenues would abound — schools, libraries, migrants, housing, parks — if those fiscal measures were in play, which, sadly, they’re not. Bonding $15 billion in transit improvements would validate a lot of bad money plays ― a point granted by exactly zero objectors on Thursday.

Nor did a single opponent allow that congestion pricing might actually cut congestion and soften our streets by culling car trips of marginal value. That’s unsurprising, given how drivers tend to cling to the idea that their trips are sacrosanct. I won’t trim my driving, why will anyone else?

Now go deeper. What I detected at BMCC was opposition to congestion pricing being supercharged by the decline of social solidarity in America, a phenomenon plumbed repeatedly by NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg, most recently in a wrenching NY Times essay arguing that what the Covid pandemic spawned here wasn’t loneliness but structural isolation: “[People] abandoned by employers, deprived of shared purpose, denied care [and thus] turning against one another.”

Notably, Klinenberg in his essay even attributes the post-2020 surge in pedestrian deaths to reckless driving set off by America’s atomized pandemic response. I’ll bet that people’s same sense of abandonment, of being “left to navigate the [Covid] crisis on our own,” is also impinging on congestion pricing: Government lies. Their experts are crooked. Nothing can get better. Or, as one aggrieved speaker told the forum, “I walk, I bike, I take transit, I’m teaching my kids to ride. We’re always going to have congestion. I’m against congestion pricing.”

Headwinds or not, we don’t stop rowing toward the congestion pricing shore.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog New York City

Justice Dept., Citing Streetsblog Reporting, Threatens to Sue NYPD Over Cops’ Sidewalk Parking

The city is now facing a major civil rights suit from the Biden Administration if it doesn't eliminate illegal parking by cops and other city workers.

April 19, 2024

What to Say When Someone Claims ‘No One Bikes or Walks in Bad Weather’

Yes, sustainable modes are more vulnerable to bad weather. But that's why we should invest more in them — not less.

April 19, 2024

NYC Transit’s New Operations Planning Chief Wants To Fight ‘Ghost Buses’

One-time transit advocate and current MTA Paratransit VP Chris Pangilinan will oversee bus and subway operations for the whole city.

April 19, 2024

Friday’s Headlines: Gimme Bus Shelter Edition

The days of the Landmarks Preservation Commission reviewing every proposed bus shelter in landmarked districts may be no more. Plus more news.

April 19, 2024

Deal Reached: Hochul Says ‘Sammy’s Law’ Will Pass

The bill, though imperfect, has been four years in the making.

April 18, 2024
See all posts