Driving downtown? Get ready to pay extra

The pandemic is resurrecting plans in the US to charge drivers a European-style toll for driving into congested city centers in hopes of fueling Covid-starved transportation systems.

New York has received a promise from the Biden government to expedite a proposal that will charge motorists when they enter an urban core. (An earlier proposal would have charged trucks an entry fee of $ 25.) San Francisco is considering a toll that could go as high as $ 14. And Los Angeles has been researching the feasibility of a traffic reduction plan that includes these types of inbound congestion pricing.

Fluctuating downtown tolls are already a reality in cities like London and Stockholm, but they were anathema in the US until recently. However, the proposals are picking up momentum as cities seek new sources of funding to replenish the budgets of transit agencies that were devastated by a year of Covid-19 lockdown. Another impetus is the urgency to contain climate change, a crisis caused in part by the exhaust systems of cars and trucks.

Beyond the revenue, proponents of the concept say it would mean cleaner air and ultimately improved train and bus connections. But the idea of ​​having to pay a road tax will still be hard to sell to many Americans.

“Given the severe financial damage that the pandemic-related deficits are causing to the MTA, the availability and presence of price congestion has never been more critical during congestion,” said Pat Foye, chairman and CEO of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “I think other states and cities as well as transit agencies across the state are watching New York and the MTA who are leading the way in this regard.”

New York has previously tried to implement its traffic jam pricing plan, which is estimated to raise $ 1 billion in transit annually by charging people for driving cars in Manhattan’s most congested area. The current round hasn’t set a price range yet, but previous proposals recommended charging $ 12-14 for cars and $ 25 for trucks, although prices would fluctuate depending on the time of day.

In the past, it has been rejected by Albany and the Trump administration, who wouldn’t even tell the city what kind of environmental review it needs to move forward. With Joe Biden, the current president, the transit guides in Manhattan are betting on being able to move the plan forward.

An official with the New York MTA announced at the agency’s monthly board meeting last month that the FHWA had told them “they will speed up our environmental process.” In this way, the MTA receives information about what type of environmental assessment to carry out in order to implement the pricing for traffic congestion. This is an important step in putting the program together. The MTA had obtained this information from the Trump administration, but DOT held the process up.

“The news was that they got the message … that it was cynical that the Trump administration sat on it and didn’t let us push the toll for the central business district … and that they were going to move it very quickly,” said Janno Lieber. Chief Development Officer at the MTA.

MTA officials have regularly drawn attention to the role pricing could play in the event of congestion in funding capital projects, as it forecasts deficits of $ 8 billion due to the economic fallout from the pandemic – which government aid packages do not fully improve has been.

Although MTA’s push resulted primarily from a desire for revenue, other cities are hoping to use traffic congestion pricing plans to influence driving behavior and clean up congested, polluted roads in busy areas – a message that comes with Biden’s intense focus on combating of climate change matches.

San Francisco is investigating a downtown entry fee, which would range from free to $ 14 depending on household income, disability, and other factors.

Tilly Chang, executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, said they were “very excited” about New York.

“We have of course seen road tolls in this form elsewhere, in Singapore, London and Stockholm, but I think New York will pioneer the system, and the guidelines will really open people’s eyes – and how they design it, is of great interest to all of us, “said Chang.

A breakthrough in New York would set a precedent for the way the federal environmental review works, including how to get a necessary exemption from the customary ban on toll roads that receive federal dollars that some cities need to advance their plans. It could also provide a blueprint for dealing with a flurry of sensitive local problems, such as: B. for the pricing of tolls and for discounts or exemptions for certain drivers.

A yet-to-be-appointed traffic mobility review body will be tasked with figuring out the exact mechanisms for pricing New York traffic jams, including putting together a variable pricing system that adapts to rush hour traffic. Public hearings take place.

While the federal green light is important, previous attempts to raise the price of traffic congestion have stumbled on unrelated issues in New York and elsewhere. In San Francisco, officials received a bill in 2019 that would have allowed them to incriminate tourist-clogged Lombard Street, but Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed justice over concerns.

“I’d give better than a 50:50 shot of political gimmicks,” said Sam Schwartz, a New York-based transit consultant who worked on previous traffic jam pricing campaigns. “But I am optimistic that legislation and a plan will take precedence. I think the Covid crisis has led to a transit crisis and I think we need more money than ever and will get public support this time.”

However, Schwartz and other experts predict a battle over exemptions for key workers and fear that carveouts could destroy the toll structure.

But without a method of delivering relief to low-income drivers and others, the plan may not fly. Some cities, including LA, already have a mechanism in place to allow low-income drivers to reduce tolls, but other companies like Oregon DOT are considering how to do it.

“Unlike transit, where transit offers a range of options for students, seniors and tolls, this is not the case because we really focus on the vehicle, not the people,” said Lucinda Broussard, director of the tolling program at Oregon DOT. “And now you’re asking us how we’re supposed to get into your life, how much money do you make … Who keeps these records? That’s not really what a toll booth or a DOT does. “

Still, equity has long been one of the selling points for congestion pricing as it burdens drivers to fund improvements to transit. Justice and climate are two of the main pillars of the Biden government’s agenda.

And while the specter of mounting congestion remains a key argument among proponents of congestion pricing, transit leaders said the need for a reliable source of income to fund local transportation could help move the plan forward.

New York lawmakers approved congestion pricing for entry into Manhattan’s central business district after the 2017 Summer of Hell, when the MTA suffered significant delays after failing to fund much-needed service upgrades. Since then, MTA officials have regularly pointed out the role pricing could play in the event of congestion in funding capital projects, as they forecast $ 8 billion in deficits due to the economic fallout from the pandemic.

“The logic of congestion pricing was driven by the needs of local transportation, and those needs only got worse with the pandemic,” said Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University.

The $ 51.5 billion New York capital plan is based on congestion pricing that generates $ 1 billion annually.

Some fear the pandemic has disrupted traditional traffic patterns, making it more difficult to set up a pricing structure that uses rush hour traffic.

“The big irony here is that we have a very supportive Department of Transportation and state legislation,” Moss said. But now this will be a decision that will have to adapt to the new economic realities of the New York area. “

However, Chang of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority said that despite the changed traffic, a congestion plan was still needed.

“There is an unintuitive feeling that during a major recession like the one we are now, we don’t have to manage demand and that there is no congestion,” said Chang, his agency’s one “Covid Era Overload Tracker” to demonstrate how traffic recovers on certain roads. “What we’re already seeing is evidence that there may be an even more pronounced reaction to people reaching for their keys.”

Los Angeles executives who also researched the feasibility of a traffic reduction plan that includes congestion pricing agree.

“Covid-19 will reduce traffic in the short term,” said Phil Washington, CEO of LA Metro, recently at an online meeting about the plan. “But the long-term scenario in our region, as you all know, has really increased.” Population and increased congestion. If we do nothing, we are looking at a complete standstill. “

And when there is congestion pricing, this may be the time.

After Albany halted its efforts in New York City in 2008, it reversed course in 2019 and approved a congestion pricing plan for the city. Few people understand the problems and urgency as well as Polly Trottenberg, who served seven years as DOT commissioner in New York and who appointed Biden as deputy minister of transportation. Trottenberg also worked for today’s majority leader Chuck Schumer, another award attorney who had recently received a major promotion. And while the new head of the Federal Highway Administration, Stephanie Pollack, opposed a variable pricing plan while MassDOT was running in Boston, she’s already signaled to New York that she’d like to work with them to make it happen.

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