Congestion Pricing: Freeing the Streets For Those Who Need it Most

Nearly a year ago my fiance and I took the train up to New York City to explore Manhattan and Brooklyn for a long weekend. It was my first semester of graduate school and, since I was back on the East Coast, I was excited to enjoy the relative ease of Amtrak travel. Getting into Brooklyn was fairly easy, after we took a taxi to Union Station in Washington, D.C. we sat on Amtrak for a few hours while reading and doing homework then arrived in New York. From there, we took the Metro across the river to Williamsburg and just had a few blocks to walk with our backpacks until we got to our hotel. Getting from Brooklyn to Penn Station for the trip back to D.C. was a completely different story... We decided to go to a deli in Brooklyn for some giant Italian subs to enjoy during the train ride and realized that we were too far from a subway stop to make it to Penn Station via public transit. So, like most millennials, we called an Uber pool. The Uber found us fairly quickly and we even made it through the Holland Tunnel and into Manhattan at a reasonable rate. But once we were in Manhattan everything came to a dead stop. We crawled in bumper to bumper traffic for nearly fifteen minutes, inching closer and closer to the time that our train would depart. At that point we realized that we were just a mile from Penn Station and decided to cut our Uber trip short and speed walk. I had remembered that traffic was bad in New York City but I had not remembered that, even weighed down with a large backpack and some even larger subs, I could walk faster than the gridlock.

At that point the bumper to bumper traffic was frustrating but aside from a sweaty back and my travel anxiety flaring up with concern that we would miss our train (we still arrived to Penn Station early), it didn’t impact me much. However, that’s not the case for everyone. What about the people that cannot get out of their car and walk if the traffic is too slow? What about the emergency vehicles that are trying to access someone in need or transport someone to the hospital?

Well, the state of New York thinks they’ve found an answer - make drivers pay to drive into parts of Manhattan. New York City will become the first American city to implement congestion pricing as of 2021.

The “congestion zone” will go from 60th Street south to the Battery and the fee will likely be charged electronically through the already frequently used E-ZPass system or by license plates. The only exceptions to the fee are emergency vehicles and vehicles carrying people with disabilities, the two groups that cannot choose to hop on the subway or avoid driving around the congestion zone. Another exception of sorts is that drivers who earn less than $60,000 annually and live inside the zone will receive a tax credit meant to cover the fee, in an effort to not excessively impact low-income residents.

One of the main benefits of the planned congestion pricing program is that the funds raised will go toward improving public transportation, including New York City’s subway system which is notoriously in need of repair. This is important because those who cannot afford - or choose not to pay - the congestion fee but still need to commute in and out of the congestion zone will turn to public transit, bicycling, walking, or e-scootering. The public transit system will likely feel the impact of the additional riders and the fees will hopefully go towards offering increased frequency of existing buses and subway lines as well as adding new bus routes going in and out of the zone.

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