NYC congestion pricing needs its Jane Jacobs
The MTA has done a terrible job selling congestion pricing to the public
The New York City MTA is extending a public comment period on its congestion pricing plan for another two weeks, through Sept. 23, in response to “significant public interest” in the proposal. The Central Business District (CBD) Tolling Program will charge vehicles to enter Manhattan below 60th Street. It will be the first comprehensive congestion pricing program in the U.S., following the lead of global cities like Stockholm, Singapore, and London. While pretty much all the important details have yet to be determined, the plan is expected to bring in $1 billion a year, which the MTA will borrow against to fund its $51.5 billion overhaul of greater New York City transit. Eighty percent of revenue after operating costs will go to the city’s subway and buses, 10% to Long Island Rail Road, and 10% to Metro-North Railroad.
The MTA last week concluded a series of marathon public hearings on congestion pricing (one started at 5pm and finished shortly before midnight) that made clear exactly how controversial the program is. Americans have strong opinions about a lot of things, and cars and taxes are no exception. But what struck me as I watched an hour of the final hearing, on Aug. 31 (available here, if you’re so inclined), is that the MTA has also failed to lead a clear, compassionate, and compelling campaign on the case for congestion pricing.
The MTA officers overseeing the Aug. 31 hearing stared blankly from stock city-agency Zoom backdrops. The hearing opened with a 45-minute presentation on the tolling program, demonstrating an inability to explain the plan concisely or in a way that resonates with the average person. The opening slide of that presentation included an angry-looking orange-and-red map of the CBD and then chunky, poorly formatted text with dry phrases like “as defined in the New York State MTA Reform and Traffic Mobility Act” and “MTA 2020-2024 Capital Program.” It’s my job to find this stuff interesting, and after two minutes I was already bored.
Here are some other ways you might start that presentation:
Congestion pricing is a signature New York City investment in a better, more sustainable future
The Central Business District (CBT) Tolling Program will:
Make air cleaner for millions of New Yorkers
Increase average vehicle speeds in central Manhattan by reducing traffic
Fund improvements and modernization to the subway, buses, and commuter railways
Increase climate change resilience
Other global cities have implemented congestion pricing to great success, including London and Stockholm
It can be easy to dismiss the critics of congestion pricing who showed up to these hearings. Many were angry, concerned, and poorly informed, with wild claims about the MTA and New York City public transit. Opponents declared the plan “embarrassing,” a “money grab,” and a “war on cars.” Some called in from their cars. Some lived in New Jersey. Many were obviously there to say their bit and leave, rather than engage in a thoughtful discussion. But plenty of people also expressed thoughtful and legitimate concerns about the plan, and seemed confused and worried about what would happen. If the city has failed to effectively communicate the plan’s benefits and respond to those concerns, why shouldn’t they be?
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