A transportation engineer rethinks congestion pricing

Congestion pricing in New York City should be easy; there are only bridges and tunnels to get into the most congested areas of the city, and many already have tolls. Access is limited, and transit is plentiful once commuters arrive in congested Manhattan. Despite these facts, political pressures from the outer boroughs and anti-tax sentiments defeated efforts to implement congestion pricing in 2008. To date, there has not been a successful implementation of a urban congestion pricing scheme in the United States, with London being one of the examples internationally.

Now a veteran transportation engineer, New York City-based Sam Schwartz, who spent his career advising the City as both a public employee and private consultant, has offered a new plan that could be more popular in the suburbs and still provide incentives to find alternatives to driving into the central business district.

Schwartz, known by many as Gridlock Sam, has created a master plan for the city that rethinks the classic congestion pricing model, which primarily penalizes outlying communities. Highlights of his plan includes charging higher prices for solo drivers with access to rail who choose to commute via automobile, while charging less for drivers without access to rail. His plan also makes the affluent neighborhoods of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens pay their fair share. It further addresses the political concerns of the outlying communities by dedicating some revenues to the maintenance of highways and bridges.

In total, Schwartz estimates that his plan would raise an extra $1.2 billion in funding annually for the cash strapped MTA, the largest transit agency in North America, currently facing a severe budget shortfall on its five year capital plan, which includes some of the largest public works projects in the nation. It would also create thousands of new jobs, decrease congestion, and actually reduce travel costs for the majority of commuters. He has yet to present his plan to city officials. However, one investment bank was impressed enough to say  it could be the basis for a $15 billion bond issue.

Because congestion pricing has so much potential as an untapped revenue source for transportation agencies, it is worth rethinking its implementation to make it more politically feasible.