The MTA admits congestion pricing won’t cut traffic everywhere — but will do it anyway


Thursday evening, after years of delay over federal environmental review, the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority began accepting public comments on its proposal to charge cars and trucks between $9 and $23 to enter Manhattan below 60th Street during the day, raising $1 billion a year — at least — for new transit projects. So far, 946 people have signed up to speak because there’s plenty to comment on. 

Surprise: The environmental review predicts the Bronx will see more traffic, not less, under congestion pricing (as will Staten Island). “Increases in [vehicle miles traveled] in the Bronx would be driven largely by increases … on the Cross Bronx Expressway,” the report notes.

In all but one option on the MTA’s menu of seven tolling ideas, traffic on the Cross Bronx increases by 170 to 704 trucks daily. In only one of the MTA’s proposed toll-price scenarios — one in which the toll to enter Manhattan would be the same for trucks and cars — would the number of extra Cross Bronx trucks be kept to 50. 

This late-breaking development is particularly egregious because for nearly two decades, since then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg proposed it in his 2002 budget, congestion-pricing advocates have insisted that congestion pricing would benefit the Bronx by reducing traffic everywhere.

Ritchie Torres, the congressman representing the area, is a mild-mannered, serious, knowledgeable guy and a theoretical supporter of congestion pricing. Yet he was shocked.

Last Monday, he held a press conference to say he felt “ambushed” and “blindsided and misled.” He declared, “Divert[ing] diesel truck traffic from Manhattan to the Bronx … is not fair, that is not right, and that is not what the people of the Bronx were promised.”

Bronx Rep. Ritchie Torres said he felt “blindsided and misled” about congestion pricing after the report was released.
Bronx Rep. Ritchie Torres said he felt “blindsided and misled” about congestion pricing after the report was released.
AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades

Why was this never flagged? Urban planners have held up the example of the Cross Bronx Expressway as a “racist highway” for years.

One possibility is that the MTA’s traffic modeling is wrong. If the agency can fix its Bronx problem by finding the equivalent of a spreadsheet typo, then it should do so.

But that it already didn’t isn’t a great sign. No US city has ever done congestion pricing, so it’s fair to say much of this is sorcery. Couldn’t the MTA’s high-priced consultants have made certain assumptions that would have yielded a neutral impact on the Cross Bronx?

That the MTA didn’t is a testament to the agency’s honesty — but doesn’t bode well for an easy solution. 

Smaller flaws abound. Why has the MTA designated 14 hours a day a “peak” period for the maximum toll, up to $23? (The final rate will depend on whether the MTA credits people who have paid tolls on other crossings, such as the Triborough Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel.)

The MTA’s commuter rail trains don’t define “peak” hours this way.

The MTA plans to make "peak" congestion pricing 14 hours of the day.
The MTA plans to make “peak” congestion pricing 14 hours of the day.
Christopher Sadowski

And there are no free entries in really off hours, even though a 2018 report then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo commissioned envisioned free driving.

Charging people between $5 and $12, the proposed “overnight” rates, to drive to Manhattan at 2 a.m. makes no sense if the goal of reducing congestion is of equal weight to the goal of raising money. The roads aren’t congested at 2 a.m., and no commuter rail option from the north exists. 

But the MTA is desperate for money. Absent cost reform — not included in this plan — the need to raise cash will quickly eclipse the goal of fine-tuning traffic.

Another odd result: Citywide, the long-term consequence of congestion pricing, per the MTA’s outlook for 2045, is an increase in traffic from today’s levels, from roughly 47.1 million vehicle miles traveled each day to between 48.9 million and 49.4 million. Even the impact within the Manhattan core is basically flat — a reduction of just 3.1%.

Advocates are minimizing these projections, saying we can do other things to reduce traffic later. Sure. But for 20 years, we have been promised that doing this was the answer.

We can’t politely ignore the fact that the holy grail of traffic management, billed for decades as the answer to our jams, actually won’t, long-term, cut traffic, according not just to the MTA’s projections but to London’s two decades of experience. (And in London, congestion pricing raises just $400 million a year — a rounding error in the MTA’s budget. It cannot be a savior of an otherwise dysfunctional transit budget.)

Many advocates equate criticism with a desire for more delay and, potentially, cancellation.

But it is the Biden and Hochul administrations that long delayed preparing these environmental documents, pushing off congestion pricing’s start over and over, from early 2021 to, at the earliest, late 2023.

Now we can see the reasons for their delays. 

Adapted from City Journal.



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