New York approves plan to implement congestion tolling: Beginning of a new trend?

By Chet Edelman

As part of its recently passed $175 billion budget, the state of New York is allowing for congestion tolling to be implemented in New York City. While several key questions remain unanswered, the basic plan calls for charging vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th Street a $9 to $15 fee during peak congestion times. Lawmakers believe congestion tolling will not only reduce city vehicle traffic levels but also provide a new source of revenue to fund and maintain New York City’s aging subway system. More importantly, however, New York’s plan may serve as a tipping point for other cities in the United States to finally move forward with their own congestion tolling systems.

New York State’s decision to embrace congestion tolling makes it the first government body in the U.S. to do so. While several international cities have successfully implemented congestion tolling in recent decades, the closest comparison in the U.S. is High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes—a system requiring the creation of one or two specialized toll lanes that fluctuate in price depending on highway congestion levels. Since 1995, ten states have implemented some form of HOT lanes; nevertheless, their effectiveness in alleviating congestion has been relatively minor due in part to HOT lanes’ limited capacity.

While cities such as London and Stockholm saw tangible results after adopting congestion tolling—the latter saw a 20 percent reduction in vehicle traffic in its central business district—state and local governments in the US have been reluctant to move forward with this option. For one, congestion pricing is unpopular among the public. Keenly aware of this, elected officials remain hesitant to throw their support behind such a controversial policy. Additionally, critics worry that congestion tolling will exacerbate economic inequality by pricing out lower-income drivers who have no other means of commuting to work. Yet, despite these concerns, New York state officials saw no other reasonable alternative to address their problems.

Consequently, the actions of New York may serve as a critical turning point in the adoption of congestion tolling across the U.S. Until now, cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, and Boston have merely floated the idea of using congestion pricing to address their crippling traffic issues. However, now that a peer city has taken the initiative to move forward with congestion tolling, other cities may feel emboldened to push through plans of their own.

A recent study of congestion pricing for the congestion-choked area of West Los Angeles estimates that the project could net $69 million per year, even after paying for administration and increases in transit. The same study also projected a dramatic impact on freeway congestion, travel times, greenhouse gas emissions, and the mode split for the area.

Congestion tolling in Manhattan is projected to be fully functional starting in 2021. Until then, cities may simply resort to a wait-and-see approach to assess how New York’s experiment plays out. Regardless, New York’s adoption of congestion tolling signals that momentum is finally beginning to shift in favor of this much-discussed but long-avoided policy.

Chet Edelman is a Project Assistant at SSTI.