Tip Sheets

New York City has ‘unique’ political feasibility for congestion pricing

Media Contact

Kaitlyn Serrao

The New York City Traffic Mobility Review Board has released a report recommending the toll structure for congestion pricing in the Central Business District. It features a base fair of $15 in the tolling zone.

Zakhary Mallett

Department of City and Regional Planning

Zakhary Mallett is an expert in transportation pricing and travel behavior at Cornell University. He says New York City is uniquely positioned, relative to other U.S. cities, to implement congestion pricing, and that such a program is not likely to be easily transferable to other parts of the country.

Mallett says:

“While New York City’s motivations for congestion pricing are common, its political feasibility is somewhat unique. Our method of funding transportation infrastructure in this country is inefficient; major infrastructure spending bills come about every few years because revenue from travelers does not keep pace with the costs of maintaining infrastructure. This has placed increasing pressure on policymakers to find long-term, financially sustainable solutions.

“User fees, like congestion pricing, offer this and are increasingly on the list of options cities explore. However, relative to other cities, New York City has a large urban- and transit-oriented population that will not be terribly impacted by the charge. In fact, they will benefit from the use of the congestion fees.

“Municipal and state boundaries shield the New York political economy from those onto whom the incidence of the congestion charge will fall (i.e., non-New Yorkers). These characteristics make this congestion charge program politically feasible in New York City but are not reflective of most other cities, so the program is likely not broadly transferable.

“Rather than endlessly building out roads and transit to serve congestion period travel, congestion pricing is a way of marketizing travel and using this to inform transportation investments. But to follow through with this logic, we need to also allow the monetized market of travel to inform investment decisions.

“If demand and congestion are so high that a profit can be generated from congestion pricing, this is an indicator that more supply (i.e., throughput capacity) is needed in that corridor. Instead, the New York City policy will use the congestion charges to finance transit more generally, which means the money could be used to cross-subsidize wholly unrelated investments. Apart from the economic disconnect, this subjects transit to continued reliance on alternative revenues. If congestion reduces, so revenues fall, what then?”

Rick Geddes

Professor, Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy

Rick Geddes is a Cornell University expert researching the funding, financing, permitting, operation and maintenance of heavy civil and social infrastructure.

Geddes says:

“Such pricing has been successful in other urban areas in reducing traffic congestion, air pollution and frustration while improving safety. It will also provide added funding to improve aging New York infrastructure, such as the subways.

“Many transportation experts believe this new program to be the most important development in transport policy in decades and that it could unleash a ‘transportation revolution’ in the United States, as more jurisdictions appreciate the power of such pricing to address congestion. If done properly, it could provide a role model for other large cities in the United States to move beyond small pilot projects and adopt similar programs appropriate to their needs.  Although adjustments will be needed over time, such as addressing spillover effects in neighborhoods near the priced zone, New Yorkers overall will see their quality of life rise in the coming years.”

Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews.