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Moves to implement New York’s ambitious proposed congestion pricing program are speeding up, but Hell’s Kitchen residents are stuck in a gridlock over the potential practice.
The MTA’s Central Business District Tolling Program, or congestion pricing as it is colloquially known about town, moves to charge vehicles entering Manhattan below 60th Street using a version of the E-Z-Pass system already in place in the city’s tunnels, bridges and highways. While the exact tolling amounts are still being finalized, a recent environmental assessment proposal suggested charging as much as $23 for some vehicles entering at peak traffic times. Under the proposed program, cars would only be charged once a day — but with no exceptions for residents, aside from a tax credit for households earning under $60,000 a year.
Local leaders have argued that the program, which will be used to fund the financially flagging subway system, would have a significant positive impact on the city’s environmental and structural sustainability. Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine — one of the most prominent city voices in favor of the toll — tweeted: “If you’ve ever been late to work because your train is late, you need congestion pricing. If you skip the bus because it’s so slow, you need CP. If you suffer from asthma because of air pollution, you need CP. If you care about climate change, you guessed it….”
As for New Yorkers? Over 200 respondents took W42ST’s survey about the proposal, the majority of whom (92 percent) hailed from Hell’s Kitchen with four percent from outside the proposed Central Business District.
Although studies have shown as few as 11 percent of Hell’s Kitchen residents own a car — over half (50.4 percent) of our survey’s respondents were car owners. Unsurprisingly, around two-thirds of car owners (64.7 percent) thought the planned congestion pricing was a bad idea, with 9.5 percent in approval of the program. A quarter of the drivers (25.7 percent) had not taken a view or explained their views in the comments. On the flip side, 67.7 percent of respondents who did not own a car thought it was a good idea, with 16.6 percent against.
For those passionately in favor of the program, the potential pros of reduced 9th Avenue traffic (and subsequent honking), safer pedestrian streets and reduced emissions were more than enough to earn their support.
“I despise the car congestion and constant honking near my building. The less cars, the better,” said reader Gene. “I have been waiting for congestion pricing to roll out since it was passed in April of 2019,” added respondent Charlie. “I’ve waited patiently through the Trump administration’s stall tactics, the pandemic delays, and the lengthy environmental review. I am so excited it is finally coming next year. Cars and trucks are loud, dirty, and dangerous; we should not allow our streets to be highways. Congestion pricing will reduce travel times for those who absolutely must drive (including emergency vehicles and vehicles transporting people with disabilities, both exempt from the charge), and it will create a greener and safer neighborhood for the vast majority of Hell’s Kitchen residents who do not own cars. On top of all of that, the funds go to improving mass transit for all.”
Some readers referenced similar already-implemented programs around the globe: “I lived in London when it went into effect and it improved pedestrian life a ton,” noted reader Cory, while others argued that the initiative would complement investment in the city’s road infrastructure. “My tax dollars go to support the roads and parking,” said one reader. “I’d rather have less traffic, allow for delivery, mass transit, and taxi / Uber, but give the streets and street parking back to bikes green space” while another escalated their request in hopes that the city would eliminate street parking altogether, adding: “Daily commuters should be pushed towards public transit, and public transit options should be expanded. Cars ruin cities. They’re loud, dirty, and dangerous. Anything the city can do to dissuade motorists from coming into the city is good in my book. They need to go further and remove all on-street parking.”
Survey respondent Adam already had a plan in mind, telling W42ST: “Driving is incredibly subsidized in New York by the city already. The cost of roads, maintaining streets/officers, etc. are all on everyone even though most use subways which are hardly subsidized ($2.75 each way is ridiculous compared to driving in a per mile comparison). There should be neighborhood passes that go for $1,000/year, tickets for anyone parking outside a private lot without a pass, and main thoroughfares (e.g. 48th, 42nd, 8th, 9th) should be bus/truck only during business hours.”
“If there’s one place in America that should be as car-free as possible, it’s Manhattan,” wrote respondent Jeremiah. “Cars cause particulate pollution, noise pollution, and make us sicker. They take up space that could be used for more public transit, bike lanes, pedestrian zones, commercial space or green space. They kill numerous pedestrians every year. Anything that reduces car usage in Manhattan is great, and we should fully support congestion pricing.”
Others pointed out that the threats of climate change made reducing car usage in Manhattan more pressing than ever. The MTA’s environmental assessment report forecasts that the program could reduce traffic by as much as nine percent and public transit use would increase by as much as two percent. Said reader Tracy: “Climate change is a very real threat. We need to do everything we possibly can to save the planet. Getting cars off the roads and out of a city that has very good public transit and good walkability is a no-brainer.”
Many readers referenced 9th Avenue as a car-filled pain point, often citing the safety risks of too many cars from the Lincoln Tunnel darting through the thoroughfare’s construction. Said Robin, “9th Avenue is horribly unsafe during rush hour. Pedestrians have to weave in and out of cars blocking crosswalks. Drivers run lights and turn into pedestrians in crosswalks who have the walk light. It’s out of control! It’s mostly cars with New Jersey tags and a single driver with no passengers. They also get frustrated and honk like crazy. What did they expect when they drove in? Why are they allowed to ruin our quality of life?”
Some respondents hoped that the program would eventually expand beyond 60th street. “Congestion pricing is decades overdue for the CBD, and it will definitely improve safety, quality of life, and help green HK,” said one reader. “Frankly, all of Manhattan should be in the congestion zone, but south of 60th is a start. And there should be no expeditions for NJ drivers paying tunnel tolls also, and likewise, residents shouldn’t be exempted from the toll just because of where they live. For too long it’s cost nearly nothing to store and drive a car in NYC.”
Many respondents argued against the need for personal car ownership at all — as respondent Greg noted, “Traffic in HK is a NIGHTMARE! Extremely loud horn honking, idle exhaust, increased pedestrian risk for serious or fatal injury, cannot enjoy outdoor dining at all! Who needs a car in Manhattan for Christ’s sake?!?”
In turn, quite a few respondents were willing to share why they needed a car in Manhattan. “I work far away — I need my car, the subway system is unsafe to travel in,” said reader Jazz, as another lamented, “Manhattan already favors the rich — this measure only hurts the working class.” Some noted that car ownership — more popular in the outer boroughs than in Manhattan — would affect those who cannot afford to live in Manhattan, but work there, and those who live in Manhattan and must work outside of public transit access. “It’s not some deluxe theme park,” said reader Rob. “Sometimes people really do need to drive around here and other transportation options may fall short.”
“I work in a suburb of NJ inaccessible to public transport half the days of the week,” added reader Ben. “I pay $40+ round trip already with gas and tolls. An extra $46 totaling $85+ will screw me over.”
“I am a resident of Hell’s Kitchen — an Intensive Care Physician who provides 24/7 medical care in Staten Island, must drive, at all hours and in both directions,” said another. “I also have elderly, disabled parents who frequently need transport for medical care.”
“It’s easy to say ‘simply get rid of your car,’ but some of us have family in New Jersey (my elderly mother and the rest of my family) who are not reachable by public transportation,” said another reader. “Also my husband gets jobs in New Jersey which are not reachable without a car, plus we have a large dog who isn’t allowed on public transportation. There are multiple reasons why we can’t simply get rid of our car, and now we will be charged a fee that our neighbors uptown can avoid. We’ve lived in Hell’s Kitchen for almost 30 years, helped to build and better the area, and now we’re being charged a fee for it.”
“I am a senior citizen and shop for groceries and necessities in New Jersey on occasion (it’s more affordable on a fixed income and better selection),” said Monica. “Therefore I will be paying a toll at the Lincoln Tunnel to return to my home and an ADDITIONAL $23 toll to drive to my apartment to unload my groceries and purchases. INSANITY!”
Others noted the impact on small business owners already operating on razor-thin margins. “My husband is a small business owner who needs to drive to multiple points in the city every day to do repairs,” said reader Tierney. “It already costs us hundreds to park because there is no street parking.”
Others noted the move could be detrimental to area tourism, where visitors from the Tri-State area frequently drive in for the day to patronize Hell’s Kitchen’s theaters, restaurants and shops.
“It’s bad for Manhattan,” said reader T. “It will price me out of coming into the city. Theaters, doctors, restaurants, museums will all be hurt. Public transportation takes two to three times as much as driving does. Also, my safety on public transit is at stake vs being able to go directly where I need to go.”
Others were most concerned with the lack of exemption for residents other than the rebate for households making under $60,000, noting that even those who qualify for the exemption would have to pay the tolls up front before being reimbursed. One added: “I would hope any resident regardless of income bracket would be exempt from the congestion pricing! We pay enough in taxes as is.”
“I agree with the principle of it, but I don’t think it’s fair for the actual residents of the area to have no way of avoiding it (apart from getting rid of their car),” said another reader. “$60k is too low of an income threshold for the tax credits on it; we all know NYC is expensive and this will be a financial burden for people well beyond $60k. It’s not right to judge people for having cars either — you really don’t know people’s personal situations.”
Others were frustrated at the 60th Street border: “Whatever the feelings about congestion pricing itself, it seems grossly unfair that we residents cannot avoid this new toll/tax, while neighbors who live just a few blocks uptown can avoid it. How is that fair?” said one respondent, while another argued that those already feeling the high cost of living in Hell’s Kitchen would be burned further. “This is an unfair charge that will put yet more cost pressure in an area where rents are out of control and inflation pressure is already a challenge,” said Renan. “The best way to reduce car traffic is to make public transportation safe and attractive — right now it isn’t.”
Many respondents argued that even those against car ownership would be affected, as taxis would take on an additional surcharge (along with the already-implemented below 96th Street ride fee). Taxi drivers, already beleaguered by the pandemic, have vocally protested the program, which the environmental assessment concedes would affect its drivers.
As reported by The City, “The environmental assessment report acknowledges that ‘scenarios that charge every taxi and FHV [for-hire vehicles, such as Uber] trip would lead to higher overall prices paid by customers’ and adds that some options could reduce employment among taxi and FHV drivers. ‘A potential disproportionately high and adverse effect would occur to taxi and [FHV] drivers in New York City, who largely identify as minority populations, in tolling scenarios that toll their vehicles more than once a day,’ an executive summary of the report says.”
“This will destroy the taxi cab and delivery industry,” added respondent Christy, as reader Lori noted, “Anyone living below 60th Street is going to be charged fees for coming home, for deliveries, for taxis while those above 60 will not.” She added: “Instead of using sticks, how about using carrots? Create incentives to use mass transit. Show what a good, safe transit system looks like instead of asking people to trust that the fees will go to improve the trains, etc. I fear those with clout will find loopholes to exploit, leaving the rest of us to pay for something that could be corrupted.”
Some readers blamed rideshare services for the situation at hand. Said Ana: “Uber cars are a large part of the congestion and the city has allowed it. Now they want the hard working people to pay. If they reduce the amount of Uber cars then more people will take mass transit and congestion would be reduced without the money grab.”
Others argued that despite good intentions, the current public transit system in Hell’s Kitchen and citywide was not nearly extensive enough to respond to an immediate toll. Said Gregg, “I’m all for getting rid of cars, but the reality is that we don’t have infrastructure in place to allow all of us to live without cars yet. Residents who live below 60th Street should at a minimum have a reduced toll. It isn’t fair to punish us for living here.”
Some respondents who were on the fence about the program noted skepticism at the MTA. “The congestion charge is less about congestion and more about raising funds for the MTA,” said one reader. “If the MTA were fully funded they wouldn’t be considering it at all, so they should name it something different — perhaps Transportation Infrastructure Surcharge. Nobody chooses to take a joy ride through midtown during rush hour. It’s just a cash grab by the MTA and will likely do very little to discourage taxis, ride shares, delivery trucks, etc. from coming into the area. As your article states, Hell’s Kitchen has the lowest car ownership in the city. If it passes, residents should be exempt.”
There were also many respondents in favor of the program, but only if a resident exemption could be reached. “In principle I think it’s a good idea,” said reader Karen. “In execution, I think some residents and others will be penalized unfairly. Residents should be exempt. I also think that there could be exemptions for workers who come in at late hours where public transit isn’t a viable or safe option.”
“I think if you can prove that your primary residence is within the congestion area boundaries, that you should be exempt from the charge,” added Wendy. “I also think if you drive less than five miles per day in the city, that you should be exempt. I don’t see how this can be enforced for people coming into the city who do not live in the congestion boundary vs those who live in the boundaries. We drive to work in New Jersey, there is no public transportation option at all, so what are the options?”
“As an NYC resident — it’s a great idea,” said Danny, who was on the fence about the practice. “The traffic and pollution is just horrible and will only get worse if nothing is done. The city needs to lead the way, to the direction of just public transit, ride shares and bicycles. I have family up in the suburbs (Westchester County) — it’s horrible. That is a lot of money. Round trip will be roughly $111 to come into the city. This will either stop people from coming in…or force them to use public transit.”
But for one respondent, the only thing that mattered was New York’s bottom line. “I don’t know enough about it to have much of an opinion,” wrote the reader, “but I will vote against anything that will cost us more money.”
The public comment period on the Central Business District Tolling Program runs through September 9 and has several upcoming hearings where you can share your opinion with city legislators.