Will NJ drivers get slammed by NYC’s congestion fee? A Q&A with a commuter expert

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New Jersey drivers already get clobbered by tolls at the Hudson River crossings, so the last thing they need is another purse-busting fee for driving into Manhattan’s “Central Business District,” which is defined as the region below 60th Street.

But if there is any way to discourage driving, reduce traffic, improve air quality, and raise $15 billion for the MTA to modernize a century-old subway system, a congestion pricing program is the most plausible one.

There are some kinks to work out, however, and New York is not listening. The big one: Commuters who drive into Manhattan using the Holland or Lincoln tunnels will not have to pay the fee, but those using the George Washington Bridge must. The logic of that is questionable, but the result is not: It will nail commuters who use the GWB, and send thousands more south to jam the tunnels. Worse still, New Jersey doesn’t even have a seat on the board that will ultimately make the rules.

Despite that, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign says that New Jersey needs to chill. The non-profit, dedicated to fixing our commutes with planet-friendly policy recommendations, released a study that said the impact on our state may be nominal if preliminary guidelines set by New York’s legislature do not change. Felicia Park-Rogers, director of regional infrastructure projects for Tri-State, spoke with Dave D’Alessandro of the Star-Ledger Editorial Board to spell it out for Jersey commuters:

Q. Start with what everyone wants to know: When they crank up this congestion charge in 2023 or so, do you anticipate that some New Jerseyans will have to pay a Hudson toll plus a second toll, and is that fair?

A. Good question. As it’s written, the legislation singles out drivers at the Holland, Lincoln, Midtown and Battery tunnels for exemptions. From there, the Traffic Mobility Review Board will flesh out more details. What we recommend is that drivers receive a credit on tolls for Hudson crossings. For example, if you pay $10 to go through the Holland and they set the toll in the Central Business District at $20, you only pay $10 when you drive into the CBD.

But they don’t mention the George Washington Bridge in the legislation, because they were looking at the direct entries into the cordon zone. We believe that it makes sense to equalize all tolls throughout the region.

Q. But as of now, the only commuters who are likely to get slammed by a double charge – bridge toll plus congestion charge — come from the GWB, the RFK Bridge, and the Henry Hudson Bridge. This may seem like a narrow procedural point, but why be so arbitrary?

A. One aspect of the legislation is that tolling is required to produce an annual amount of dollars, which the MTA will leverage into a $15 billion bond. So the issue is this: The more exemptions you create, the higher the toll has to be. The one way to reduce the pain for everybody is to have few exemptions, so more people pay less rather than a few people paying extraordinarily high toll rates. But certainly, the most impacted people by this legislation are actually New York drivers.

Q. So Tri-State doesn’t endorse any exemptions — not even tunnel travelers — because everyone should share the burden.

A. We believe that’s the format that the Board will be taking, but it’s not prescribed how it will be in the legislation: When they say “credit,” our interpretation is that they mean a credit against the toll: You don’t get the full CBD charge. There is still a lot to clarify.

Q. This doesn’t assuage the GWB commuter who drives below 60th St. – for years, he’s been told to prepare for another $20 daily hit.

A. What our report shows, however, is that significantly more New Jerseyans use mass transit than one would assume, so we hope this data would take some of the panic out of the conversation. What we know is that our climate is in serious trouble, and our region is suffering dramatically, and we all have the responsibility to do whatever we can to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

Of course, we understand the concerns of people and we all need to be good neighbors. So with the money raised through congestion pricing, we hope the MTA prioritizes the capital projects that New Jersey transit riders care about – like improvements at Penn Station – and that they do everything they can to make transit use more convenient, reliable, safe, and efficient.

Q. Let’s talk about the top-line takeaways from your report: You say the vast majority of New Jerseyans who go into the toll zone – 77% — get there with via mass transit.

A. Only a small percentage of drivers come into the CBD for work by car. And among those who drive, only 1.6% will be subject to a congestion charge. We studied 21 legislative districts in North and Central Jersey, and it’s almost always under 2% in each one. And among the drivers who will be charged, the median income is more than $110,000, so we’re talking about mostly higher income folks.

Q. In hard numbers, that 1.6% of the commuters subject to a congestion charge translates to about 25,000 drivers. That’s still unacceptable to Gov. Murphy, who is threatening to play hardball with Port Authority business; and Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who may try to block federal funding for the MTA. What do you say to them?

A. I’d remind them that this is regional economic hub, based on collaboration between New Jersey and New York. That’s why we have this unique entity in the Port Authority that works on both sides. That’s why our congressional delegations have worked hard to bring in federal dollars for the Gateway Project – that’s something that benefits both states.

I also hope they also remember what happened in London. When they began congestion pricing (in 2003), there was panic and concern – but they are happy how it worked out. It created a tremendous amount of revenue to improve the transit and reduced congestion. So I understand their concerns, but ultimately congestion pricing is a win-win for our region.

Q. The London Underground is a brilliant system in every way, but the traffic in the 5-mile radius around the city center is still horrendous. Does that mean that congestion pricing doesn’t always work?

A. London, Singapore, and Milan have all seen initial reductions of congestion and improved air quality, but they found that it’s not a one-and-done deal. Like all our tolls and fares, it’s something that has to get adjusted over the course of time, whether it’s an expansion of the zone or raising the toll.

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