Despite continued skepticism from City Hall, a group of transit advocates and researchers are insisting that New York City has the power to impose a $2.75 toll on Manhattan drivers and fund direly needed public transit improvements without first seeking permission from Albany. Move NY made the case before the City Council on Monday, pitching a "home rule" congestion pricing plan they predict could generate more than $1 billion annually for a wide range of projects including expanded bus service in transit deserts, reduced fares for the working poor, and Citi Bike expansion in the outer boroughs.
The $2.75 toll on the four East River bridges, and crossing 60th Street in Manhattan, would cost significantly less than Move NY's earlier proposed toll of $5.76, which stalled in Albany last year.
"That's not a number we came up with by accident," Alex Matthiessen, campaign director of Move NY, told Gothamist on Monday. "It obviously happens to be the price of a subway ticket. We're basically just saying, 'Anybody who is traveling into the central business district, unless they are bicycling or walking, should be paying their fair share.'"
Currently, there are tolls on the Verrazano, Kennedy, Throgs Neck and Whitestone Bridges. These would decline under the state Move NY plan, but not the city plan, which would not impact bridges operated by the MTA. Like the state plan, taxis and other for-hire vehicles like Lyft and Uber would pay a surcharge pegged to the amount of time spent in Manhattan's hyper-congested central business district.
Congestion pricing was first championed by former mayor Michael Bloomberg, who envisioned a pollution- and traffic-reducing measure. But outer borough City Council members took issue with the proposal, which died in Albany in 2008. Move NY formed in 2010 and later welcomed transit expert Sam "Gridlock" Schwartz, who suggested some of the toll revenue go towards bridges and roads, to appease drivers. Move NY pushed new congestion pricing introduced in Albany last spring, which was met with opposition from a coalition of Queens politicians who argued their constituents would shoulder an unfair financial burden.
In a letter to Transportation Committee Chairman Ydanis Rodriguez on Monday, six attorneys and law professors outline their interpretation of New York Vehicle and Traffic Law, which they argue empowers the city to impose a toll on NYC roads without state permission. They point to section 1642(a)(4), which provides cities with more than a million residents the right to impose "tolls, taxes, [and] fees ... for the use of the highway or any of its parts where the imposition thereof is authorized by law."
According to these lawyers, tolls could be authorized through "either a state law enacted by the state legislature or a local law enacted by the City Council."
.@NYCMayor says he won't put energy into congestion pricing but it's "hard reality" it won't pass. Same can be said of mansion tax he pushed
— Sally Goldenberg (@SallyGold) June 5, 2017
Mayor BDB: no congestion pricing with "current political alignment" in Albany.
— Eric Phillips (@EricFPhillips) June 5, 2017
Testifying on Monday, Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg acknowledged that between New York's crumbling subways and booming population, the situation is dire. "We hear loud and clear from community boards, elected officials, businesses, and New Yorkers who drive, are stuck on the bus, or use crowded sidewalks, that they are frustrated by congestion and are asking the City for answers," she said.
However, Trottenberg said she is skeptical of Move NY's case. "I have to say many attorneys over a lot of administrations have looked at this carefully and I think have confirmed that we have to get that authority from the state," she said.
NYU Law School Professor Roderick Hills, who teaches local government with a focus on NYC, published a memo on his interpretation, and argued Monday that the City has failed to release a public justification of its own. "Next time a city lawyer tells you they've studied it, ask them for an official opinion," he charged.
The City Law Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, several members of the Transportation Committee endorsed some form of congestion pricing on Monday, including Councilmen Brad Lander, Mark Levine, and Chair Rodriguez. "The City Council could lead on this," Matthiessen predicted, adding, "At the end of the day, this is not a legal question, it's a political question."
Mayor de Blasio, who stated earlier this year that congestion pricing is "not part of my vision," echoed Trottenberg's position during an unrelated press conference on Monday.
Unlike a state-sanctioned plan, Move NY's latest vision would not funnel money directly to the state-run MTA to address system maintenance or expansion. However, Matthiessen argues that the city could increase its contribution to the MTA's five year capital plan, in addition to funding bus expansion and fair fares with MTA support. The MTA's 2015-19 capital plan includes a record $2.5 billion in city funds, though that money is currently tied to Governor Cuomo's illusive contribution.
"This plan is not going to solve the subway crisis that we are facing right now, because the money would go to the city, not the MTA directly," Matthiessen said. "Really the subway crisis is only a crisis the Governor can solve."
Neither the MTA, nor the Governor's Office, immediately offered an opinion on Move NY's latest plan.