There’s no question that the most crowded streets in the state (perhaps in the entire country) are in the borough of Manhattan. Start out with thousands of yellow cabs, add private cars and car services and top it off with delivery and service vehicles, and it all adds up to massive gridlock. Most Long Islanders don’t blink when they hear the words “congestion pricing,” but this idea, now before the State Legislature, is a big deal for out-of-city drivers.
According to a study published by the Long Island Association in 2015, almost 29 percent of Long Islanders who commute to Manhattan each day drive there. While the number of people who commute by train continues to grow, there are still many local people who rely on cars to get them to and from work. So the question for these motorists is how much more a congestion pricing policy would cost them to get to work.
There’s no question that something has to be done to cut down on the traffic in and around Manhattan. It can take an hour to get to the city and another hour to reach your destination once you’re there. The idea of charging an additional toll if you drive into a specific area is a good one. It’s laudable that the money that would be collected from congestion pricing would be dedicated to mass transit. For now, though, the devil is in the details.
The current proposal focuses on the area from 60th Street down to Battery Park as the zone for extra tolls. Cars entering those areas would pay a toll similar to what they pay on the bridges and tunnels using EZPass. One dilemma is how much to charge. Right now, even if you used a tunnel or a bridge, you’d still be charged a separate toll to enter the congestion zone. The fee has yet to be defined, but if it were too high, the average driver who needs to use a car to get to work in the zone would pay a very high penalty.
Another dilemma is the pricing’s effect on different businesses. There are many businesses outside the city that have to make multiple trips to Manhattan to service their customers. That includes plumbers, electricians, delivery services and contractors. They need to have assurances that they won’t be overcharged because of their business needs. Long Island also has a number of private bus companies that take commuters and tourists into the city. They shouldn’t be penalized with high fees that could cripple their operations.
Most of the motorists from Long Island who go to the city use either the Queens-Midtown Tunnel or the RFK Bridge. There has to be some clarification as to what they should have to pay, and the toll structure should be known by our state elected officials before the Legislature approves any plan. There are plenty of examples of how congestion pricing works, because it’s already in effect in London, Singapore and Stockholm. In addition, there have been local studies full of suggestions on how to administer the plan.
The last issue to be resolved is what happens to the revenue collected from the new toll payers. The city administration has suggested that it go into a secure bank account that no one other than the Metropolitan Transportation Authority can touch. But how will it be distributed? Shouldn’t the Long Island Rail Road get some of that money so that it can be upgraded? It would be patently unfair if so many local people pay to drive into the high-congestion zone and our region ends up with nothing.
We have enough on our plates just trying to get to and from work and to maintain a good quality of life on Long Island. A noble government experiment like congestion pricing needs to be watched closely to make sure it doesn’t turn out to be a disaster.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.