By Jerry Kremer
Everything in this world is a function of timing. Whether it’s sports or some other activity, timing is everything. And it will be a key issue when it comes to the state’s long-planned congestion-pricing plan, which is scheduled to start sometime in 2024.
There is no doubt that drivers in New York City face challenges every day. As the coronavirus pandemic has faded, negotiating the traffic in and out of the city has become a disastrous experience. There are many more suburban private-vehicle commuters than anyone anticipated.
Planning groups have been advocating for many years for a congestion-pricing plan. It has worked in London and Singapore, and it was hoped that it would eventually come to New York. But the key question is whether or not it’s the right time to impose this burden on scores of thousands of drivers.
I have always been an advocate of finding a way to cut down on congestion in the city. A number of mayors have grappled with ideas on how to improve traffic flow, but all of their ideas have fallen flat. With more bike lanes and parking restrictions as well as the traffic, it’s almost impossible to maneuver around the city at virtually any hour of the day.
Is it the right time to start the congestion pricing program? No. I think it’s the wrong time, for a variety of reasons. The Covid nightmare may be long gone, but the city hasn’t recovered. Many businesses suffered greatly, and are just beginning to recover from their losses. Charging trucks that make multiple trips to the city will just become a consumer tax.
The hearings on the congestion plan were a sham. Members of the public were given a chance to weigh in on whether they supported such a plan, but listeners sounded bored with the whole process. You can’t have a real hearing without knowing what it will cost to use the toll zone.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority says it will soon reveal the toll structure, but by then the plan will be a done deal. There is no way that car and truck owners will have an opportunity to express their concerns, ideas or opposition to the final announcement. Knowing the MTA from past experience, I expect the tolls to be arbitrary and unreasonable.
The agency has stated that tolls could be as high as $23. My guess is that they will be much higher. The real toll structure will depend on how much it will cost to set up the tolling system. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent to get the E-ZPass system up and running. If the construction contract runs over budget, and you can expect that it will, drivers who commute will end up paying to cover those costs.
Most people aren’t familiar with the term “bond covenants,” which relates to the guarantees in the congestion-pricing legislation. It means that the tolling costs will be covered by the tolls drivers pay. If the cost of erecting tolling devices is exceptionally high, the tolls will have to rise to pay off the bonds.
The MTA has said that the tolls may be lower on weekends. But with drivers covering the no doubt excessive construction costs, don’t expect any bargain fares. Sadly, the more questions people ask about the details of the program, the more likely it will be to turn into a disaster, because those answers won’t come in time.
This program wasn’t launched by Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration. It was created by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and Hochul has now inherited the plan. She is at the mercy of a bureaucracy that is rarely people-sensitive. If the MTA botches the toll structure and offers a confusing implementation plan, Hochul will have inherited a major political headache.
Congestion pricing is a good government idea. There is a need to control the city’s traffic nightmare. But those who drive into the city need this plan right now like they need a hole in the head.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.
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