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The MTA Steps on the Congestion Fundraising Accelerator

-By: Sid E. Walker, P.E.

 

As most New Yorkers are already aware, “congestion pricing” is a hot topic. Most coverage portrays it—exactly as the philosophical villain Thanos described himself in “Avengers: Endgame”—as inevitable. 

Overview

In terms of vehicular traffic and roadway networks, is congestion due to a high quantity of vehicles? Low roadway acreage? Neither. It is the net result of more vehicles than the roadway network has the capacity to move. Like a fiscal deficit, it’s the shortfall between the two. 

As currently envisioned, congestion pricing would charge E-Z Pass users between $9 and a whopping $23 to enter the Central Business District “zone” below 60th Street. The ostensible result will be less congestion, shifts in travel mode choice or timing, and a financial windfall for the MTA. 

The program is projected to raise at least $1 billion annually ($3 billion per the MTA) for much-needed subway improvements, expansion, and buses. 

The MTA appointed the Traffic Mobility Review Board (TMRB) to fine-tune pricing and potential exemptions for final adoption by the MTA board. The mayor appointed one seat. Six virtual public hearings were held between August 25th and August 31st to solicit public comment.

Capacity and Clogs

While the number of miles of streets has been relatively constant over many a decade (approx. 8,000 miles), the number of lanes, and therefore the number of lane-miles has not. 

Thanks to the increasing amount of bike lanes (approx. 30 miles), the number of lane-miles remaining available to cars, trucks, and buses is actively and strategically being decreased, most notably on Manhattan avenues—the north-south arteries of the heart of the city. And Broadway? It is now a pedestrian mall. 

But here, the numbers are beside the point. Thirty out of 8,000 may be a drop in the oil pan, but a clogged artery can cause a heart attack much more readily than a clogged capillary. And so it goes with lower Manhattan traffic congestion. 

It’s a “zero-sum game” if the curb-to-curb widths are constant. But they are not. Specifically, there are an ever-increasing number of pedestrian safety “bump-outs” at corners, which leads us to a related topic: intersections. 

As part of the “Vision Zero” DOT toolkit to minimize the number of fatal or serious injury accidents, a good number of intersections now have extensions of the original sidewalk corner. These often zero out turn pockets entirely, which in turn causes traffic backups and much less “throughput.” 

To continue with the circulatory system analogy, intersections are more and more becoming…blood clots. Corners now contribute to congestion. The movement of people, goods, and services is getting ever more difficult, and apparently not a DOT priority.

Demand

While vehicle traffic is back to “normal,” subway ridership is back to only 60 percent of pre-pandemic levels. The attraction of congestion pricing to transportation policymakers is clear, but to leaders trying to get workers back to the office, less so.

And to those of us who live inside the zone, we may soon be asked to pay a tariff to access our own homes that the great majority of New Yorkers will not suffer, and which New Jersey commuters want to be exempted from. NJ says it’s “double taxation” to pay to cross the GWB, and then continue downtown. (One toll-taker is PANYNJ, the other is MTA, but why quibble.) 

Strikingly, the public debate to date has not included a “residency” exemption.

Next

Congestion pricing will be implemented no sooner than 2023, assuming the matter doesn’t end up in court, aka legal congestion.

Sid E. Walker is the pen name (no, really?) of a long-time local village resident, parent, and professional civil engineer who has been active in local community issues for the past 15 years, has helped unsnarl the LGA roadway system, and who would like to see a better-informed discussion of local traffic and transportation issues. His family has been Villagers for three generations.

Photo: 9th Ave at West 40th. Note the elimination of what should be a left turn lane. 

Credit: Sid E. Walker

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