As Congestion Pricing Approaches Reality in New York, Regional Plan Association Issues Recommendations for How it Should Be Implemented

New report outlines 10 policy proposals to create an effective system and prevent ‘toll shopping,’ including two-way tolling, variable pricing and limiting exemptions

NEW YORK, NY – As the State moves forward with the first congestion pricing program in the country by January 1, 2021, august civic organization Regional Plan Association today issued its recommendations for how the program should be implemented. Until the historic passage of the Traffic Mobility Act by the state legislature and Gov. Cuomo on April 1, 2019, congestion pricing was a hotly debated policy for decades, with the potential to reduce traffic and CO2 emissions in New York, raise needed funds for the city’s over-burdened public transportation system, and address inequities in Manhattan’s tolling system. 

The report, entitled Congestion Pricing in NYC: Getting It Right, is meant to inform the MTA’s Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA) and yet-to-be-appointed Traffic Mobility Review Board (TMRB) as they proceed to make key decisions defining the specific contours of congestion pricing in New York, with the aim of balancing these sometimes competing priorities elegantly and effectively and with equal commitment to each.

The report recommendations are broken down into two sections – system design and implementation, and pricing – with key recommendations including two-way tolling to prevent toll shopping and balance today’s inequitable tolling structure; variable pricing throughout the day, which, depending on how it is implemented, yields different revenue, traffic and C02 reduction results, while also guarding against toll shopping; and limiting exemptions to those already established by the legislature, to prevent exemption misuse and abuse and maintain the sanctity of the system. 

“As the first U.S. city to adopt congestion pricing, New York has the opportunity to serve as a model for others on how to maximize the benefits of this system,” said Tom Wright, President and CEO, Regional Plan Association. “Major cities around the world have transformed and improved the way people move around by doing this right, bringing substantial benefits to drivers, public transit and the environment. The passage of this year’s state budget was a historic victory, but now we need to move forward with an eye toward designing a fair and effective system that is well-enforced and measurable.” 

“As the first state in the country to move forward congestion pricing, the State of New York has taken another critical step in creating a 21st century public transportation system that New Yorkers deserve. Not only will congestion pricing raise billions of dollars to modernize our aging system, but it will also go a long way towards clearing traffic from our gridlocked city streets—a true win-win. RPA’s report serves as a roadmap to help ensure that congestion pricing is implemented effectively and equitably,” said Scott Rechler, Chairman, Regional Plan Association.

“RPA's report goes a long way to bridge the gap between the 2019 legislative framework for congestion pricing and the actual toll system that will start up in 2021,” said Charles Komanoff, Theodore Kheel Visiting Fellow in Transportation Policy, Roosevelt House at Hunter College

“RPA’s report helps set a useful framework for implementing congestion pricing in New York City. Road pricing is an important step toward reducing traffic congestion in lower Manhattan, improving the region’s air quality, and raising revenue for the mass transit improvements millions of riders need. It’s important that we establish an equitable system that meets these goals and is also adaptable to new and emerging technologies,” said Nick Sifuentes, Executive Director, Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

“Getting congestion pricing into the state budget was a historic win for New York's transit riders. Now it's time to make sure congestion pricing actually works for our streets and subways. Governor Cuomo, the MTA, and the Traffic Mobility Review Board need to deliver a plan that decongests Manhattan and makes transit reliable and accessible for all New Yorkers. Regional Plan Association's strong guiding principles, recommendations and analysis are well worth heeding,” said Danny Pearlstein, Policy & Communications Director, Riders Alliance.

“In April, Governor Cuomo and the NYS Legislature made history in enacting the nation’s first-ever congestion pricing plan, an innovative and proven strategy for taming traffic and modernizing mass transit,” said Alex Matthiessen, Director, Move NY Campaign. "But until we put it into effect, it’s just a plan on paper. With this new report, RPA establishes a blueprint for how to do congestion pricing right. If adopted, RPA's recommendations will not only make New York’s congestion pricing program a model for other U.S. cities but, more importantly, a plan that will deliver less traffic, better transit and improved health and quality of life for every New Yorker.”

Julie Tighe, President, the New York League of Conservation Voters said, "RPA's Getting It Right report will help the Traffic Mobility Review Board and other decision-makers implement our new congestion pricing system in a way that balances raising revenue to make our region's transit more reliable with reducing congestion, emissions, and air pollution. The report also calls for clear objectives and metrics, which will help ensure that we're on track to meet the mandates of the Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act and that bus, train and subways improvements prioritize transit equity. We thank RPA for their thought leadership in this constructive report.”

“New York's bike map today is incomplete and patchy, so doesn't attract as much usage as it should in a very a dense city where people mostly make short trips. Congestion pricing is a one-time opportunity for New York to add key connections and build a real network of protected bike lanes in and around the Manhattan central business district,” said Jon Orcutt, Director of Communications, Bike New York.

“New York has no choice but to get congestion pricing right. RPA's report lays out a clear and effective roadmap for the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and the Traffic Mobility Review Board to implement a successful congestion pricing plan in New York City, ensuring the success of our transit system for years to come,” said Jaqi Cohen, Campaign Director, NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign

“Passing congestion pricing was a remarkable feat. Now, getting the implementation right is critical to making our transportation system safe and sustainable. RPA’s report provides a compelling and realistic roadmap towards making that happen. Per their recommendations, New York City can achieve a robust and transparent program by using a straightforward charging system, raising adequate revenue, distributing benefits equitably, and protecting against the abuse of exemptions. Such a program allows New York and New Yorkers to truly thrive thanks to congestion pricing,” said Danny Harris, Executive Director, Transportation Alternatives.

“If done right, congestion pricing will deliver cleaner air and better transit,” said Andy Darrell, New York Regional Director, Environmental Defense Fund. “We can pay with asthma and congestion — or invest in modernizing the city’s broken transportation system, and help New York become a global model for a city where people, the economy and the environment thrive together.”

RPA arrived at its policy proposals based on revenue and traffic impact estimates generated by Charles Komonoff’s Balanced Transportation Equalizer, the same model used by Governor Cuomo’s Fix NYC Advisory Panel. The report’s ten recommendations are in full as follows:

System Design and Implementation

  • Implement transit and bicycle improvements prior to starting congestion pricing. These could include additional bus service and priority bus lanes along with more protected bicycle routes and bike share options on both sides of the East River crossings. 

  • Adopt specific objectives and metrics to meet traffic, environmental and health goals and ensure that benefits are equitably shared. In addition to revenue, the TBTA should specify targets for traffic reduction, air pollution and other metrics. Neighborhood impacts should be measured so improvements are prioritized in areas with fewer transit options and lower incomes.

  • Design the system to incorporate new technologies that can transition to more dynamic and effective pricing. Planning should begin now for a pricing technology upgrade that will eventually allow a more nuanced approach to charging vehicles that considers time or distance spent in the most congested locations.

  • Install congestion pricing devices to allow for a simple method of identifying vehicles by-passing the zone. To make the system as unobtrusive as possible, place devices at bridges, tunnels and 60th Street to record when a vehicle enters and leaves using the FDR or West Side Highway.

  • Introduce two-way tolling in the congestion zone. To eliminate toll shopping and better manage congestion, the cost of entering or leaving the congestion zone should be consistent. Combined with variable tolls, two-way charges will have more influence on driver behavior during both morning and peak periods, maximizing the reduction of congestion.

Pricing

  • Vary the congestion fee by the level of congestion at different times of day, and by size of vehicle. Drivers who use the road at the most congested times should be most encouraged to switch to different times or other modes of transportation. 

  • Set the congestion charge high enough to meet both congestion and revenue targets. To ensure a sufficient charge, budget for contingencies in case estimates are low or include a mechanism to adjust prices if needed.

  • Apply a consistent rationale to determine which tolls should count as a credit toward the congestion charge. Credits should equalize tolls for drivers with similar trips, reduce incentives to drive farther and add congestion to avoid higher tolls, and limit revenue reductions that would be passed on to other drivers.

  • Exempt taxis and other for-hire vehicles from the congestion charge, but keep the current surcharge on fares within the congestion zone. Regardless of the congestion charge, livery drivers must enter the zone to work, while the per trip charge gives passengers an incentive to walk, bike or take transit. Substituting the congestion charge for the surcharge would be ineffective, resulting in a loss of approximately $400 million for transit.

  • Limit user-based exemptions to those already specified by the legislature. Legislature-mandated exemptions for emergency vehicles and disabled persons should be strictly enforced so they are not abused. Since multiple trips by passenger vehicles are exempt, the TMRB should also study the impact of exempting multiple trips by commercial vehicles, but only if it is shown these are suffering undue hardship under the new pricing.

Four alternative congestion pricing scenarios are considered in the report: a flat all-day price and low, moderate and high peak period prices. While RPA found each scenario generates roughly $1 billion in revenue, the numbers show that traffic speed increases proportionately with higher peaked charges. While a flat fee would result in a 10% traffic speed increase, a sharply peaked charge would result in a 16% speed increase, along with 16,000 more hours saved by drivers each weekday.

The environmental and health benefits of each pricing scenario are similar. Each would reduce carbon dioxide emissions and small air-borne particles by between seven and eight percent, resulting in over $100 million in annual health cost savings. Each scenario would also create safer roadways, resulting in 750 fewer traffic-related injuries and four fewer deaths each year.

In its discussion of who benefits from congestion pricing, RPA notes that it is both drivers, who see reduced congestion, and riders of public transit, who reap the benefits of revenue reinvested back into the system. Since workers who commute into Manhattan earn more than their neighbors, they are best positioned to choose between paying the congestion charge and switching transportation modes.

While the report does not make definitive recommendations on who should receive a toll credit, RPA did analyze three possible scenarios: crediting crossings entering the congestion zone, Manhattan, and New York City. Each scenario explains the pros and cons, analyzing whether or not toll shopping incentives are eliminated or reduced, if tolls are equalized for entrants into the zone and how much congestion fees would have to be increased relative to the current TBTA tolls.