Governor Kathy Hochul’s executive budget made headlines this week for its $5 billion surplus and no expected deficit for five years — but buried deep in the document, there were also several changes to one of the biggest transit issues in New York right now: congestion pricing.
The MTA’s congestion pricing program to toll drivers that enter Manhattan below 60th Street is expected to provide crucial revenue for transit upgrades. Hochul’s measures are designed to ensure the system will have teeth, if it begins operating next year as planned.
The governor's proposed budget includes new fine structures and rules related to drivers obscuring license plates to avoid paying tolls as well as changing vehicle registration to avoid paying tickets that they have racked up. It also addresses attempts to fraudulently get a vehicle exempt from congestion pricing.
The law to allow congestion pricing passed in New York state in 2019, but implementing it has taken longer than the MTA and state lawmakers expected. The MTA blamed the Trump administration for slowing the process. President Joe Biden nudged it forward last year, but it still requires a 16-month environmental review with the tolling program expected to be up and running in 2023.
Still, many details remain undecided, such as how much drivers will ultimately pay, if there are any exemptions other than the ones written into the law, and how drivers will be charged. While it will likely be through the E-Z Pass program, the MTA hasn’t said exactly what type of devices will be placed around the city to capture driver’s license plates.
The MTA had hoped the program would raise $1 billion a year in tolls, which it could use to sell bonds and raise $15 billion for capital improvements to its rail and bus networks.
In order for congestion pricing to raise that type of revenue, the state needs to be able to collect tolls from drivers and root out any scofflaws that try to evade them, which the governor’s proposed budget would do, as long as the state Legislature approves the changes.
Chief among the new proposals is an amendment which prevents vehicle owners from obscuring their license plate as a way to avoid tolls.
“Number plates shall be kept clean and in a condition so as to be easily readable and shall not be covered by glass or any plastic material,” the governor’s budget notes.
The law would also be amended to prevent drivers from changing their registration if they rack up too many fines. The DMV would have the right to deny registration for such vehicles until the tolls are paid.
Both of those changes would prevent toll cheats, like an MTA bus superintendent who racked up more than $100,000 in unpaid tolls and fines by obscuring his license plate and re-registering his vehicle multiple times.
“Obscuring a license plate to avoid tolls is illegal, forcing others to pay more than their fair share, and the governor’s proposal will help ensure fairness,” MTA spokesperson Eugene Resnick wrote in a statement.
The changes proposed in the budget also allow the state to charge drivers with a misdemeanor if they falsely claim an exemption from the tolling program by lying about transporting a person with a disability. That is one of the few exemptions written into the original law that allows the state to implement congestion pricing. Fines are being set at as much as $5,000.
“Governor Hochul’s budget proposals will help crack down on those who try to skirt tolls, and we will work with the legislature and the MTA to ensure that everyone follows the rules of the road,” Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for the governor, wrote in a statement.
At a state Senate transportation committee hearing Wednesday, members grilled Hochul’s first nominee to the MTA board, Elizabeth Velez. Sen. Brad Hoylman asked whether she was committed to swiftly implementing congestion pricing.
“The idea of congestion pricing is a compelling one,” she said, adding it was a great way for the MTA to raise revenue. But she added, “I think we need to listen to the community, see how it will impact those residents that are in those areas, the small businesses that come in and out of the affected zones.”
The MTA already held 10 public meetings on congestion pricing, and while there were some people who complained about the tolls, the majority of people who spoke at the meetings were in favor of the program.
While state law exempts emergency vehicles, vehicles that transport disabled people and residents that live in the zone and earn under $60,000 from paying the congestion pricing fee, there are currently no other exemptions. At the Senate hearing, Sen. Leroy Comrie called for no more exemptions, but his colleague, Sen. James Skoufis, asked Velez to consider a “dollar-for-dollar credit” for Orange and Rockland County residents who cross the George Washington Bridge or Lincoln Tunnel, which both have tolls, and then enter the congestion zone.
These drivers, Skoufis said, will be “double-tolled when they don’t have a public transit alternative.”
At the same Senate hearing Wednesday, MTA chair Janno Lieber — who as of Thursday is no longer serving in an acting capacity — confirmed that by this summer the agency would set up the legally required group — the Transportation Mobility Review Board — made up of city and state representatives who will determine the final fee structure and exemptions for congestion pricing.
The MTA, which currently operates seven bridges and two tunnels, reports that it loses about $4 million a year to toll evaders, out of the $2 billion a year it collects. Still the agency insists it has a good system for rooting out toll evaders.
If letters and registration suspension requests sent to scofflaws don’t work, the agency can simply bar the persistent violator from their facilities. And if the person keeps using the bridges or tunnels, an MTA police officer can arrest the driver.
“We have your travel patterns too. So, we know that a certain persistent toll violator may be coming through at a certain time. And we may position (police) vehicles at that specific time that specific day thinking that we may get a hit from that persistent toll violator,” Daniel DeCrescenzo, president of MTA Bridge and Tunnels, said recently. “We're always chasing the money.”