National News

For Congestion Pricing Plan, New Support and Steadfast Critics

Posted December 29, 2017 7:04 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — The closest subway station to Bob Friedrich’s home in eastern Queens is 10 miles away, so he drives to work in Manhattan at least three times a week.

Friedrich, an accountant, is one of thousands of commuters who stand to lose under any congestion pricing plan that would charge a fee to drive into Manhattan’s busiest neighborhoods at peak traffic times. Such toll systems have been proposed for decades to reduce traffic and raise money. In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg pushed for an $8 fee to enter a congestion zone from midtown to lower Manhattan.

For Friedrich, any fee would be too much. Even $8 would add up to $96 a month, as much as his electric bill, and to more than $1,000 a year, he said. It would also come on top of other fees and taxes that he already pays — including when he renews his car registration annually — that help support the state-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the city’s subways and buses.

“Enough is enough,” Friedrich said. “The well is dry. There’s no more money in our pockets. We’re completely tapped out.”

Even as New York edges closer toward a congestion pricing plan, Friedrich and his neighbors in the middle-class Queens neighborhood of Glen Oaks illustrate the hurdles that lie ahead. They are part of a swath of eastern Queens and Brooklyn that forms a belt of opposition to tolls on the free East River Bridges or any new fees to drive into Manhattan. They mobilized against the Bloomberg plan, which died in Albany after legislative leaders refused to bring it to a vote.

But congestion pricing is back at a time when gridlock is getting worse and the transportation authority is in dire need of money to fix the city’s subway system, which is plagued by delays, breakdowns and overcrowding. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has assembled a state task force to explore congestion pricing measures as a means to reduce traffic and direct more money to the subway. He is expected to announce a plan as soon as early January.

This time, supporters of congestion pricing include even Uber, the ride-hailing company whose ubiquitous black cars have filled city streets. Uber, which started in New York in 2011, plans a major campaign to promote congestion pricing, beginning on Wednesday with a “six-figure” run of television ads followed by other outreach such as radio ads, mailings and phone calls.

“Users of Manhattan’s congested roads should bear part of the cost of helping to reduce congestion and improve our public transit system,” said Alix Anfang, an Uber spokeswoman. “Everyone — whether it’s a personal vehicle, delivery truck, taxi or Uber — should pay their fair share to keep New York City moving forward.”

The critics are gathering, too. Two weeks after Cuomo revealed that he was reviving a congestion pricing plan in mid-August, three Queens elected officials — Assemblyman David I. Weprin, City Councilman Barry Grodenchik and the Queens borough president, Melinda Katz — appeared at a news conference to pre-emptively oppose tolls on the East River bridges.

“This has been an issue for decades and decades in Queens and Brooklyn,” said Grodenchik, a Democrat, who is skeptical that a new fee would significantly reduce congestion in midtown Manhattan or improve the speed of traffic, which averages just 4.7 mph. “People get nickeled and dimed for just about everything in the city and that’s enough — the nickels add up.”

Weprin, also a Democrat, said that while he was open to other options, any tolls or fees to go into Manhattan would be a “nonstarter,” especially since many residents already face potentially higher taxes under the Republican tax overhaul. “It’s another potential nuisance tax that will be a disincentive for living in New York City,” he said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has also opposed congestion pricing, arguing that it would hurt lower-income drivers. Instead, he has proposed taxing the wealthy to raise money for the subways. “In a choice between funding public transit by taxing millionaires or by taxing working and middle-class people from the boroughs, there’s no question where the mayor stands,” said Austin Finan, a spokesman for the mayor.

A recent report by the Community Service Society, a nonprofit that supports congestion pricing, challenged the idea that a congestion fee would disproportionately affect the poor. The report found that just 118,000 commuters, or about 4 percent of working residents from the boroughs outside Manhattan, could be subject to a congestion fee. Of those, only 5,000 would be living in poverty. In contrast, far more workers, including the poor, rely on public transit, according to the report.

A grass-roots campaign, Move NY, has also worked to soften opposition to congestion pricing. It has shown that a congestion pricing plan could benefit the boroughs outside Manhattan with proposals like a “toll swap” to lower existing tolls on bridges linking areas with few subway and transit alternatives, such as the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island, even as new tolls are added to the East River bridges. It has also called for using part of the revenue from congestion pricing for increasing access to public transit outside Manhattan and for improving roads and bridges to directly benefit drivers.

Still, many residents of Queens and Brooklyn remain wary of a congestion fee. Bill Wilkins, a Brooklyn native who is an economic development director in East New York, said he was offended by the idea because it would further penalize those who have already been priced out of living in Manhattan. “I don’t find it to be congestion pricing,” he said. “I find it to be a discriminatory practice based on economics.” Kevin J. Forrestal, the president of the Queens Civic Congress, which represents more than 100 civic and community groups and opposes tolls on the East River bridges, pointed out that some people have no choice but to drive into Manhattan because they live too far from subway stations, or are too old or frail to take the stairs and navigate crowds. Before he retired last year as a hospital administrator in the Bronx, Forrestal used to drive to work because the alternative was a long commute involving a bus, three subways and lots of walking. “The subway system is really not accessible to everybody,” he said.

Friedrich, who serves as president of his co-op, Glen Oaks Village, which has about 10,000 residents, said there was growing worry about a congestion fee, especially among older people on fixed incomes and young families just starting out. “It’s real money for me, and certainly real money that can make or break someone not as fortunate,” he said.

He said there were other ways to reduce congestion in Manhattan besides tacking on a new fee, such as by, say, eliminating bike lanes on major thoroughfares that are lightly used in cold months but contribute to year-round gridlock or by reducing fares on the Long Island Rail Road, which runs through Queens, to the same areas as the subways.

“People are struggling and this adds to the stress,” he said. “We don’t have a choice. We need to take the bridges.”