Tuesday, 13 March 2012

New York congestion pricing 2012 version

2008 version

It's fairly well known that New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, tried and failed to get approval to introduce a congestion charging system for the city in 2008.  The problem was not the city, but the state Assembly which declined to hold a vote on the issue, which would have been necessary to authorise the concept.  The proposal was to introduce a cordon on the southern half of Manhatten between 0600-1800 weekdays for all traffic except buses, taxis/for-hire vehicles, emergency vehicles and vehicles of disabled motorists.  Of course as the map below demonstrates, crossings from New Jersey are already tolled, as are two crossings of the East River.  The original proposal would have meant that those tolls would be deducted from the congestion charge, so that the effect would be that no motorist crossing the cordon would pay more than anyone else.

Bloomberg's original New York congestion pricing concept

The failure to get political traction for the proposal has been subject to much speculation and discussion, but one view is that it focused on penalising motorists within the state, without giving them anything in return.   With all of the proposed revenue focused on public transit improvements, and the congestion reduction benefits difficult to sell in advance of pricing, it became easy to rally opposition to the proposal.  In short, motorists needed to get something back.

2012 proposal

Now it would appear a new proposal is making the rounds, and it does take a step forward in doing just that.  The noise around it could be seen when I wrote a few weeks ago about a suggestion from Jeffrey Zupan, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association of New York, that tolling the East River Crossings to Manhatten could be offset by reducing tolls on some other tolled crossings in New York further to the east.  I believed this was a step forward, but not enough.  However, the real momentum has come from an article written by Bill Keller in the New York Times  in support of the wider congestion pricing concept.  He was flattering of the plan of Sam Schwartz, once senior official with the New York City DoT,  to restructure tolls and public transport fares to penalise motorists with public transport options, and to encourage bypassing of downtown Manhatten.

The plan is well described from Mr. Schwartz's own presentation from his website.  He believes the original proposal failed in part because there was little in it for "car-centric outer communities", that it was viewed as just another tax, that politicians wouldn't be trusted to spend revenues on transport, that people in the Boroughs pay (but not those in Manhatten) and that "inter-borough travel" is sacrosanct.

He illustrates the fundamental problem of tolling for metropolitan New York in this image, which shows how some trips over key crossings face relatively high tolls at peak times, whereas others are free.

New York tolls, results of adhoc policies
The principles he used to reform these tolls were to:
- Apply market based pricing where congestion is severe and there are public transit alternatives;
- Lower tolls where alternatives are poor and congestion is low.

His plan would see tolls for cars in New York looking like this:

Sam Schwartz plan for New York congestion pricing
The change from today is patently clear from his next image here, which shows the change from current tolls:

Sam Schwartz plan for congestion pricing - toll price changes
The effect is then to:
-  Introduce tolls on all East River crossings that do not have tolls, in both directions;
-  Slightly increase tolls on East River crossings to match that level;
-  No change to tolls on crossings from New Jersey;
-  Reduce tolls on six other New York metropolitan toll crossings.

He also wants to abolish the parking tax for people in Manhatten south of 86th Street, introduce a $1 surcharge on taxi trips south of 86th Street and cut bus fares by $1 in areas with poor subway access.

He reckons that it would generate gross revenues of $1.69 billion all up, would cost $250 million per annum to operate (including covering East River bridge maintenance costs) leaving the rest for transport funding.  He plans $200 million a year to be spent on highway projects and bus rapid transit, $50 million on pedestrian/cycle facilities including three substantial bridges for those modes from Hoboken, Brooklyn and Long Island City to Manhatten.  The rest is for public transit subsidies and capital works.

The calculated benefits are time savings worth $3.5 billion per annum from reduced congestion arising from a 22% reduction in travel time on average in the CBD.  There are no doubt other benefits from reduced emissions affecting public health.

Good idea?

Yes.  This is a step forward.  It would mean New York would have a more sophisticated concept than London, and it offers motorists something in return.

In part because the rebalancing of toll rates makes some sense in targeting congestion, and offsetting the impact the congestion pricing proposal has on outer boroughs.  It treats all tolls are part of a pool of funds, which in a city where there isn't currently scope to introduce proper full network pricing, it isn't efficient to just target some crossings with tolls and not others, and indeed to have users of some crossings bear their full infrastructure costs, but not other roads.  The tolls should as a priority be seen as sufficient revenue to ensure the capital and maintenance costs of all of the tolled crossings are recovered from users, but beyond that pricing to reflect congestion is economically efficient.

A second useful point is to have tolls in both

Thirdly, I am pleased money is being proposed for highway improvements, but dare I suggest another option on top of that.  Although it raises the risk of budgets being replaced by this revenue, using some of the revenue to deal with the some of the shockingly poor standards of pavement maintenance (and indeed traffic signals, lighting and signage) would produce significant noticeable benefits in terms of travel time, vehicle wear and tear, safety and emissions.

It is out of the scope of this blog to talk about long term performance specified approaches to highway maintenance, but a new approach is needed to deal to the potholing, rutting and poor state of many Manhatten roads.  There are clever ways to treat maintenance as capital when it is about replacing fully depreciated assets, an extra $50 million a year on a rolling programme of pavement reconstruction and replacement would do wonders for cars, trucks, buses, bikes and pedestrians.  I'd strongly urge that some of the revenue be dedicated to a special fund for capital investment in upgrading existing rights of way.   It's simply poor quality of service to pay a toll to access a network that is potholed and crumbling.

Speaking of which, the proposed cycle/pedestrian bridges are an excellent way of promoting what are, in the long run, rather low cost alternatives to the car.  More cycling and walking can relieve both the roads and public transit, and taking a pro-active approach to those modes is good for the city.


How should changes in tolls be assessed? A transparent basis for future changes should be accepted as being necessary.  That can mean something akin to Singapore's approach of having target speeds for charged routes.  If traffic regularly operates at lower speeds, it can justify an increase, if it operates at higher speeds, the opposite.

How will a dedicated fund be set up to comfort those paying the tolls?  The establishment of a hypothecated/earmarked transportation fund needs to be done in a way to avoid fears of political hijacking of what will be an enormous source of net revenue.  I'd suggest an independent arms length board be appointed, separate from the MTA, which will assess proposals for the use of revenues from relevant public transportation bodies.  The idea being that there is accountability for performance, so that those responsible for large projects don't think they can get away with inflating costs, delaying delivery and not providing robust cost-benefit assessments of their proposals.  Whilst money can be dedicated proportionately to certain broad activities (e.g. highways, public transit, active modes), it shouldn't be dedicated to projects from the start.  Quite frankly designing this will take as long as rolling out the system.

When will existing toll systems be transitioned to fully electronic free flow tolling?  New York should start to work with the Port Authority to shift all tolled routes to fully electronic free flow systems.  That does mean abolishing cash, it means investing in technology for prepayment of trips by different means (e.g. mobile phones), and it means having an effective enforcement system that crosses states for toll violations.  It shouldn't be rocket science, and it should be a priority.  The savings made in abolishing toll plazas and the congestion they create will be worthwhile.

How can discounts/exemptions be contained?  Every discount or exemption can cost a lot in terms of complexity and reduced benefits.  These should be tightly contained and calls for them assessed against some key principles around economic benefit, social equity, practicality, effect on enforcement and cost.

What future proofing should any system have?  So any such system should be flexible enough to cope with pricing that may vary at different times of day and different directions of travel.  That flexibility should be in both directions.  Proposals to increase tolls at certain times and routes should be considered for potential to reduce them at other times.  Longer term, moving to mileage based user fees could be considered to replace tolls and fuel taxes, but for now let's keep it practical and move forward.

Other coverage

Ben Fried in Streetsblog writes in more detail about the plan, but also Charlie Komanoff's variation which includes:
  • Fees to drive into the Manhattan CBD that range between $3 during the least congested times of day and $9 during the most congested times. There is no outbound fee.
  • A 15 percent toll reduction on the seven non-CBD MTA bridges.
  • CBD fees are waived for the first trip a vehicle makes each month.
  • Surcharges on yellow taxi trips — 12 percent for miles, 20 percent for waiting, and a 25-cent drop fee.
  • Truck tolls averaging 1.6 times private auto tolls.
  • Express bus fares reduced by 10 percent.
  • Commuter rail trips that begin and end inside NYC would cost the same as a subway fare.  
I think this also has considerable merit as another variation, with variable charges being particularly promising (although perhaps they should be phased in over time), along with surcharges on yellow taxi trips (which should also parallel some more fundamental reform of the sector).  I'd argue truck tolls should reflect road space occupancy (so would be higher than 1.6x a car) though.


It is good to once again have a debate about congestion charging in New York.  It has the potential to reduce congestion and pollution downtown, and to provide revenue to uplift all modes of transport in the city if done well.  It also has the potential to divide, frighten and to promote all sorts of disinformation and scaremongering, if the debate is focused on details that can be adjusted or on concerns based on past political behaviour.   It should be able to unite environmentally and public transit oriented Democrats, with market-oriented Republicans, but on the other side may unite some union-oriented Democrats with anti-tax Republicans as well.  Schwartz's proposal is not perfect, but it is a change from the Bloomberg proposal, and does provide some answers to offset concerns previously expressed.  It should form the basis for a higher debate about addressing the tolling inequities that currently exist in a way that makes sense for transport users, the economy, the environment, residents and businesses.  It will mean winners and losers, but there are winners and losers today.  It's about time the debate focused on who they are, and why debates about equity need to look at the how inequitable things are now!

Now, any chance a New York politician will have the courage to really push this?

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