City Council Holds Congestion Pricing Oversight Hearing

A city street with buildings lining each side sits packed with traffic. The sky is a light grey shade, indicating pollution, and a street sign above one of the cars reads "E 38 St."

Traffic in Manhattan.

By Carmo Moniz |

As the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s congestion pricing plan inches closer to becoming reality, many New Yorkers are worrying about how they and their communities might be impacted.

The plan has suffered years of delays, costing the MTA hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. Now that the agency has the federal government’s go ahead, it is facing concerns over the plan affecting communities in transit deserts, low income New Yorkers, environmental justice communities and other groups.

Throughout the plan’s development, the MTA held 19 early outreach sessions with a focus on environmental justice communities, and heard from hundreds of speakers in these sessions and public hearings, according to a statement from MTA spokesperson Joana Flores. The agency also held separate meetings for other groups, such as electeds, advocates and community boards.

The New York City Council’s Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, headed by councilmember Selvena N. Brooks-Powers of Queens, heard testimony about the plan from MTA officials, residents and advocates in a Thursday oversight hearing.

“The administration has an important role to play in helping to coordinate the implementation of congestion pricing,” Brooks-Powers said. “While I’m disappointed that the representatives from the administration are not here to answer the questions that are specific to their role, the committee will be following up with a public letter with questions to the administration.”

The first panel of witnesses included NYC Transit president Richard Davey, MTA deputy chief financial officer Jai Patel, bridges and tunnels chief operating officer Allison C. de Cerreño and deputy chief for government and community relations William Schwartz. Davey emphasized increased ridership in recent months and the MTA’s improved finances after receiving a long-term bailout from the state in April.

“I am an enthusiastic supporter of congestion pricing, and we need it now,” Davey said at the hearing. “The money raised from congestion pricing is going to help pay for much needed upgrades that will bring our transit system into the 21st century.”

The congestion pricing plan is expected to raise about $1 billion annually for the MTA, which is currently saddled with $48 billion in debt. The funds will go toward $15 billion of the agency’s 2020-24 Capital Plan, which aims to improve the safety, reliability and accessibility of the city’s transit system through upgrades and larger construction projects.

Larry Penner, a former transit employee and transportation advocate, said that the $15 billion in funding could be worth less by the time they are spent on capital projects because of inflation, causing some projects to be pushed into the 2025-29 Capital Plan. 

“It’s also going to have an impact on the next five year capital program, because the MTA, there’s only a certain number of staff, a certain number of track hours and a certain capacity to manage a certain number of capital projects and programs,” Penner said. “To me, that’s the biggest scandal.”

If there is excess funding for the 2020-24 Capital Plan, the projected funding from congestion pricing could transfer to the next plan, according to Flores. In the statement, Flores also said inflation is taken into account when determining the cost of capital projects, and that those costs are adjusted according to changing trends.

Installation for congestion pricing infrastructure is already underway, with scanners in place near Columbus Circle, West 61st Street and West End Avenue. License plate scanners and readers for E-Z Passes, which allow drivers to prepay tolls, are expected to be installed in more than a hundred locations around the city, with tolling slated to begin next spring.

Still up for debate are what exemptions and discounts should be included in the plan. The MTA’s Traffic Mobility Review Board, which will determine how much to charge drivers entering Manhattan from below 60th St., has received over 120 requests for exemptions, including for city workers, taxi cabs and low income residents. Taxi drivers and rideshare workers, both of which already pay a tax to the MTA, have been especially vocal about wanting to be spared from the fee. 

On Tuesday, 25 city and state politicians called for taxi drivers and rideshare workers to be exempt from the tax, which could be up to $23, in a letter addressed to the TMRB. In the letter, politicians proposed a small fee per Uber or Lyft ride to be paid by passengers in place of the congestion tax, citing the companies’ role in causing congestion. 

“Drivers — whether yellow cab, green cab, livery, black car or app-based — are an integral part of the fabric of New York City,” the letter reads. “The impact of an additional surcharge being taken from drivers’ income — on top of the taxes and surcharges drivers already pay to the MTA — or a significant drop in ridership because of a high per-trip fee would be devastating for Uber and Lyft drivers, and simply unsurvivable for taxi drivers.”

At the meeting, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said he supports the congestion pricing plan, but that it should not come at the cost of others, especially low income New Yorkers. He also said he believes the MTA should provide exemptions for congestion pricing, but that there should only be a few and discounts should be more heavily relied on.

“If you are driving daily into the city, you are doing so mostly because you want to do so out of convenience,” Williams said. “If we are going to change things, that means we have to change things. I know that it is difficult for some folks, but we have to.”

South Brooklyn assemblymember Lester Chang also spoke at the hearing, and said that he would have voted against congestion pricing if he had been in office at the time of the vote.

“I fear unfortunately the genie is out of the bottle, congestion pricing is going along and the governor is enthusiastically pushing this plan,” Chang said. “I hope we have a chance to reverse this congestion pricing.”

MTA Announces Updates on Interborough Express

A man sits at a table wearing a gray suit and blue tie. A nameplate reading "Michael J. Shiffer" is placed in front of him.

MTA senior vice president of regional planning Michael Shiffer at the town hall event.

By Carmo Moniz |

The Metropolitan Transit Authority recently shared an update on its proposed Interborough Express, a train line that will run between Jackson Heights and Bay Ridge.

While the project is still in its early stages, MTA officials explained the train line’s current status and next steps in a town hall this past Wednesday. 

The last update on the $5.5 billion project was in January, when the MTA decided on a light rail system for the line. MTA senior vice president of regional planning Michael Shiffer said that it could still be years before the agency breaks ground on the project at the meeting.

“We’re still very early in this process,” Shiffer said. “I don’t want to leave you with a sense that this thing is going to be done within a year or two, it’s going to take a while.”

The project will remain eligible for federal funding by undergoing an environmental review, which takes two years to complete, but the government could still decide against advancing it after the review is finished. Shiffer said the project’s advancement is also dependent on the space available in the MTA’s 2025-29 Capital Plan. 

With the light rail option, the trip from one end of the line to the other is estimated to take around 39 minutes. The line could operate with as few as five minutes between trains, according to Shiffer.

a graphic showing the proposed Interborough Express stations between Roosevelt Avenue and Brooklyn Army Terminal.

A graphic from the MTA’s presentation.

The infrastructure for the train line already partially exists, and had been used to carry passengers until it was designated for freight-only use in 1924. While some of the infrastructure for the project is already in place due to the old line, new stations, tracks and other modifications will need to be added. Among these changes are 45 bridges that need to be built. 

Shiffer said that the MTA has asked the public for their input on where the stations should be, and has seen more than 1,000 people make suggestions for station locations. There are currently 19 proposed stations, including at Brooklyn Army Terminal, Atlantic Avenue and Roosevelt Avenue stations, but Shiffer said these could change as the project develops.

“The early sense was that this really hits the mark on so many of these targets that it certainly got the attention of the public, it’s had the attention of the public for quite some time,” Shiffer said. “The governor, as well as a lot of key planners throughout the region, and leaders saw that this may be a promising project, and so that’s why we’re doing the work we’re doing now to better understand how it could support our region.”

Larry Penner, a former transit employee and a transit advocate, said he thinks the IBX may struggle to hold the MTA’s attention due to other projects in the next Capital Plan.

“Everyone has their dreams,” Penner said. “It was a nice public relations news release, and they had the public outreach, which was nice, but the proof of the pudding will be when they actually start the environmental impact statement process.”

The next step for the project will be the “scoping” phase of the environmental review process, where the design and surroundings of the line will be under closer scrutiny, according to Shiffer.

“That’s where you come in handy because we need you, we need your support and we need your engagement,” Shiffer said. “We need you to explain to us some of the key constraints and things that the designers, the planners and the engineers need to be aware of, from a community perspective.”

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