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Congestion pricing is on its way — and in court. Here's why opponents are suing

A line of cars and trucks jam the roadway near Times Square. Under the MTA's proposed congestion pricing plan, drivers in cars will be charged $15 to enter lower Manhattan (south of 60th Street) from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends.
Jesse King
A line of cars and trucks jam the roadway near Times Square. Under the MTA's proposed congestion pricing plan, drivers in cars will be charged $15 to enter lower Manhattan (south of 60th Street) from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends.

As the Metropolitan Transportation Authority gears up for the launch of its congestion pricing plan in New York City next month, a number of lawsuits seek to stop it.

The MTA plan would toll the average driver $15 to enter the central business district (CBD) south of 60th Street, with steeper prices for trucks and smaller fees for motorcycles and those traveling at night. Advocates say it will improve life in lower Manhattan by disincentivizing traffic. The MTA expects it to generate roughly $15 billion for improvements across the transit system.

The toll has long roiled lawmakers outside New York City, including Rockland County Executive Ed Day. The Republican says congestion pricing unfairly targets commuters west of the Hudson River, who don’t have direct train access into Manhattan.

"This is truly a tax, and the MTA, whether they understand it or not, in our view, is not authorized to levy a tax," says Day. 

Rockland County sued to stop the plan in March, adding to a pile of lawsuits that include cases from New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, the United Federation of Teachers, a coalition of New York City residents, a songwriter from Battery Park City, and the Long Island town of Hempstead. On Friday, a federal judge in Manhattan heard arguments for three of these cases, but did not say when he might make a decision. The judge in the New Jersey suit has said he will rule by early June, before the MTA’s planned rollout of congestion pricing on June 30.

State Senator James Skoufis, a Democrat from the 42nd District, is just one Hudson Valley lawmaker who joined the UFT lawsuit earlier this year.

"We're arguing that the recommendations did not conduct a proper environmental review, they did not consider proper and necessary exemptions," he explains. "To suggest that my constituents, when there is no alternative, have to now pay $30 — $15 over the George Washington Bridge, and another $15 once they enter the business district of Manhattan — on top of gas, is an outrage."  

Rockland County's lawsuit is a bit of an outlier. Most of the plaintiffs, like Skoufis, look at the environmental impacts of congestion pricing. While advocates of the toll say it will improve air quality in lower Manhattan, opponents fear it will shift traffic patterns in a way that increases pollution outside the CBD.

Amy Turner of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School breaks down these environmental cases into two main arguments: 1.) that the toll violates New York’s Green Amendment giving residents a right to a healthy environment, and 2.) that the agencies behind congestion pricing, namely the Federal Highway Administration and the MTA, failed to conduct a thorough review of the toll’s environmental impact, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). 

“When a NEPA review is required, there’s a two-pronged process," she explains. "The first step, the agencies can do a less-rigorous form of review called an environmental assessment. If during that first step, they find that there aren’t any environmental impacts, or that any environmental impacts they do find will not be significant, they can stop.”  

Otherwise, NEPA requires a second, more intense review called an “environmental impact statement." Here’s the thing, though: while the agencies stopped at step one, their assessment is roughly 4,000 pages long. 

“The FHWA and the MTA did the steps that are more consistent with an environmental impact statement, even though they didn’t call it that," says Turner.

As for the Green Amendment claims, Turner says the 2021 amendment is too new to predict whether a judge will take them seriously. In her opinion, the stronger arguments are those tied to NEPA, and even those wouldn’t shut congestion pricing down: they would simply delay it by telling the agencies to go back and perform a review that, in Turner’s view, they’ve largely already done. That said, any delay and legal battle is costly. 

“That is the strategy that plaintiffs are often employing: ‘Let’s delay this enough that the policymakers that are pursuing this project just give up,'" she notes. 

The MTA has said delays for congestion pricing have already postponed a number of projects.

Riders Alliance, a transit advocacy group that pushed heavily for the toll, described the lawsuits as “selfish” in its own analysis earlier this year.

“The lawsuits all take this myopic approach which is ‘I don’t want to pay. I shouldn’t have to pay. Why should I pay? Who’s going to make me pay?’" says spokesman Danny Pearlstein. "When in fact, it’s a relatively small number of people who will pay, a small number of people who do drive in — and a comparatively privileged set of people who drive in, but don’t want to change their ways even when they depend on everyone else using public transit to be able to drive."

“I challenge one of these advocates to live in, let’s say, central and western Orange County — where never mind getting to the city, you can’t get anywhere without having a car and driving," Skoufis responds. "Live for one month in Orange County without a car, and then come back and tell me that driving is a privilege. Some of these folks live in La La Land.”

The MTA estimates Orange and Rockland Counties contribute less than 2 percent of the 1.2 million commuters to the CBD.

But what about Rockland County's lawsuit, which says congestion pricing is an illegal MTA tax? Well, Turner notes the plan was approved by state lawmakers back in 2019 —and the state does have the authority to tax its residents.

“This taxation argument really, I don't think, has a high likelihood of going very far," she notes.

Day acknowledges the Rockland County suit faces an uphill battle, but he says he's not giving up. 

“I’m hopeful that, for one time, the greedy ogre who does overreach — I hope this time the ogre gets caught, and gets knocked down on the seat of its pants," he adds.

Some groups, including paratransit and emergency vehicles, have been exempted from the toll. Low-income residents can apply for a discount, and crossing credits have been approved for drivers already paying to use some city bridges and the four tunnels into Manhattan. The George Washington Bridge, commonly used by Orange and Rockland drivers, was not included in that. The MTA recently announced a 10 percent discount on monthly passes to the Metro-North and Long Island Rail Roads starting June 30th, but it only applies to riders within the five boroughs.

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."
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