January 15, 2021

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Some transportation experts are advising the MTA to pump the brakes on its congestion pricing plan, arguing that the number of people driving into New York City — and their reasons for doing so — have changed dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

As the Metropolitan Transportation Authority expresses optimism that its “Central Business District Tolling Program” will be fast-tracked under President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, some are raising concerns about targeting drivers who may be financially strained in the pandemic, and are driving to work because of safety concerns.

John Corlett, director of public and government affairs for AAA Northeast, said that, even with a green light from the federal government, MTA officials “need to hit the reset button,” given how much has changed since congestion pricing was approved by the State Legislature last year.

“There’s a lot of tough questions here that are going to have to be addressed in the next six to 12 months,” Corlett said.

After years of petitioning by transit advocates and the MTA, state lawmakers approved a plan to charge new tolls to motorists driving below 60th Street — an area deemed Manhattan’s “Central Business District.” Although the toll amount has not been determined, officials have predicted the plan will generate about $1 billion annually for the MTA.

The MTA had hoped to begin charging the new tolls early next year, but the congestion pricing plan has been stalled for more than a year since the authority sent its proposal to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, as legally required, for guidance on how to move forward with an environmental study.

MTA chairman Patrick Foye said the federal government’s inaction on the proposal over environmental concerns is especially confounding, because of its potential to reduce traffic congestion, encourage transit use, and improve air quality.

“Yet, despite the obvious benefits, it’s beyond outrageous and cynical that the Trump administration has used a routine environmental review process to hold this environmentally beneficial critical project up,” Foye said in a statement Friday.

A Federal Highway Administration spokesperson said the proposal is under review, and requires thorough consideration because it would set a precedent as the first “cordon” congestion pricing toll zone in the country.

The MTA’s plan is to bond against the revenue to raise about $15 billion for its $51 billion Capital Program, which funds infrastructure investments throughout the MTA, including for the Long Island Rail Road. The LIRR stands to get about 10% of the revenue raised by the new tolls — money that would be directed toward upgrading signals, switches, tracks and stations.

The MTA continues to reel from the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has cost the agency

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