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NYC may soon begin charging drivers $15 to enter the busiest parts of Manhattan

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This spring, New York City could begin charging drivers a $15 fee to enter the busiest parts of Manhattan. It's called congestion pricing, and it's used in major cities around the world, but not in the U.S. yet. There are already several lawsuits aimed at keeping it out of New York. From member station WNYC, Stephen Nessen reports.

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STEPHEN NESSEN, BYLINE: On the traffic-clogged streets of Lower Manhattan, around 5 p.m. on a weekday, a reporter can walk faster than traffic moves. In the middle of this bumper-to-bumper crawl toward the Holland Tunnel is 57-year-old Omar Oden. I interview him in his Jeep SUV, which is barely moving. He's trying to get home to New Jersey. The idea of paying $15 a day to drive through Manhattan doesn't go over well.

OMAR ODEN: It sucks. It's a money grab by the city.

NESSEN: Oden works for a communications company in Brooklyn and says it's easier to drive than take multiple trains to work.

Well, would you be willing to pay if you didn't have to sit in traffic for so long?

ODEN: That's a very good question. I might have to think about that.

NESSEN: So that's going to get you out of your car.

ODEN: Pretty much. I'm not - I refuse to pay that. Come June, I refuse to pay that.

NESSEN: That's sort of the purpose of congestion pricing. Charge a fee high enough that it will disincentivize some drivers while reducing traffic for people that are willing to pay. The idea is that the people who do choose to drive will actually have an easier time driving. There'll be less traffic on the streets.

ODEN: And less money in your pockets.

NESSEN: He's still not convinced it's a good idea. But last week the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or the MTA, gave the toll structure its final approval.

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JANNO LIEBER: Big day for the MTA, huge day for the region.

NESSEN: That's the chair of the MTA, Janno Lieber.

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LIEBER: New York has more traffic than any place in the United States, and now we're doing something about it.

NESSEN: He's right. While subway and bus ridership remains about 30% below pre-pandemic levels, vehicle traffic is now higher than it was before COVID. There are more than 900,000 vehicles that enter Manhattan each day, where traffic moves on average about 7 miles per hour. All of the money from congestion pricing will go to mass transit improvements. That's the case former Governor Andrew Cuomo made to lawmakers and the public in 2019, when the MTA was suffering from repeated breakdowns, terrible service and badly in need of modernization.

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ANDREW CUOMO: The state doesn't have the money to pay. Either the rider pays and fares and tolls or it's congestion pricing.

NESSEN: He got it done. The state law that passed also required the MTA to raise $1 billion a year from congestion pricing, all of which goes to pay for things like new train cars, modern signal equipment and elevators for stations. The law designated the tolling zone, too. It includes nearly half of Manhattan, just about everything south of Central Park. Sam Schwartz is a former city traffic commissioner and the person who coined the term gridlock. He's been a proponent of congestion pricing for decades and says there's a lot riding on New York right now.

SAM SCHWARTZ: This means we're caring about our planet, caring about our future. And if we do it here in New York, as Frank Sinatra would say, if you can do it here, you could do it anywhere. San Francisco's got its eyes on us. Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Vancouver - they're all on the edge of proposing congestion pricing.

NESSEN: But there are several lawsuits seeking to block New York's plan. Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey is suing to halt it. He claims motorists will avoid the toll zone by driving just north of it and crossing into the city.

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PHIL MURPHY: The pollution isn't being reduced, it's being displaced. It's being literally moved to northern Jersey.

NESSEN: The MTA did conduct a federally required study of the plan, which found there would be no adverse impact on the environment in New Jersey. There are other lawsuits in New York state that must be resolved before the congestion pricing plan goes into effect in June. For NPR News, I'm Stephen Nessen in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stephen Nessen
[Copyright 2024 WBFO-FM 88.7]