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Should Off-Duty Cops Get A Congestion Pricing Carve Out?

The roll out of sweet three-wheelers for transit cops has apparently not dissuaded officers from driving into the city.
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The roll out of sweet three-wheelers for transit cops has apparently not dissuaded officers from driving into the city. via Facebook

Add the city's 38,000 police officers to the growing chorus of voices demanding a personal carve-out from the city's just-approved congestion pricing surcharge.

In an op-ed published by the Daily News on Monday, police union boss Patrick Lynch made the case for why members of the NYPD should not have to pay the future tolls, which will generate funds for the subway and buses by charging drivers between $10 and $15 to enter Manhattan below 61st Street. While emergency vehicles are already not subject to local tolls, Lynch argues that even off-duty police officers should be exempt from congestion pricing, "because we require the greatest possible flexibility to get to work."

After a bit of standard doom-mongering about how the city’s cops are at a “breaking point,” Lynch goes on to suggest that forcing off-duty officers to pay a toll over the East River Bridges like everyone else is antithetical to a "safer, more prosperous and more welcoming city." While the link between the safety of the city and bridge charges is not quite fleshed out here, Lynch does elaborate on the reason so many cops drive to work, and why they should continue to do so for free:

"We are often required to report on short notice, or to locations other than our regular command, or in emergency situations that require us to travel in any type of weather. As a result, many police officers are left with no choice but to drive to and from work on a daily basis. If we don’t, we may not make it to our assigned posts on time, or at all."

(Another likely explanation for why so many police officers are drivers: roughly 42 percent of cops live outside New York City. According to data obtained through a 2016 NYPD lawsuit, more than a quarter of the city's police force resides on Long Island, while 13 percent lives in upstate suburbs including Rockland, Westchester, and Putnam Counties. Interestingly, NYPD officers are not allowed to live in the precincts where they work).

Of course, police officers aren't the only ones petitioning for a free pass from the Traffic Mobility Review Board, a panel of city and state appointees tasked with developing the details of the plan before its implementation in 2021. In addition to residents living within the Central Business District making less than $60,000 a year, who are already exempt, a host of other groups are calling for a free pass, including: motorcycle clubs, truck drivers, tour buses, low-income outer-borough car owners, people with disabilities, people going to medical facilities, and residents of New Jersey and Long Island.

Transit advocates, meanwhile, have grown increasingly concerned that the ambitious goals of congestion pricing could collapse under the weight of excessive exemptions. Writing in Streetsblog last month, Charles Komanoff, a transportation economist and member of the governor's congestion pricing task force, warned that discounting just 10 percent of trips from the toll fees could shrink the pool of transit funds by up to $1.5 billion, while costing drivers and bus riders a combined 16 million hours annually due to the extra traffic clogging the streets.

That concern was echoed on Monday by "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz, one of the architects of the original congestion pricing plan. Noting that such exemptions don't exist for New York City's 15 other tolling facilities, Schwartz told WNYC's Brian Lehrer: "We don’t have to reinvent the wheel...Once we go down this road, it’s an incredibly slippery slope and everybody will try to game the system. It will be a big mistake."

An overly-carved out form of congestion pricing, he added, would likely resemble the city's parking placard problem — a system rife with petty corruption, where widespread misuse of placards has the effect of "watering down [the benefits] for those who truly deserve them."

Asked about the cop carve-out, a spokesperson for Governor Cuomo said that such questions would be hammered out by the review board in the coming months. A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, told Gothamist that the mayor supported "exemptions for people experiencing hardships." The spokesperson did not elaborate on how such hardships should be defined, or whether the definition applied to off-duty police officers.

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