Good job, but adjust those toll credits

Good job, but adjust those toll credits

Thank you to the MTA’s Traffic Mobility Review Board for mostly getting it right with their recommendations for congestion pricing to charge vehicles driving south of 60th St., settling on a $15 fee and using the money to invest in transit.

But the board is not like a Pentagon base closing commission, with only a take it or leave it option. The MTA can and should make some changes.

Mayor Adams wants more exemptions, but there should be zero breaks for non-government vehicles from the fee, which is largely what the board correctly concluded. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy wants a toll credit for users of the George Washington Bridge, which the board happily did not include.

What the MTA should alter is the size of the toll credit for the four tunnels into Manhattan. The board recommended a $5 credit, off the $15 fee.

Starting next year, assuming that Murphy’s federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Transportation doesn’t mess things up, drivers crossing any of the four East River bridges to enter Manhattan will pay the $15 congestion fee. But those using the MTA’s Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel or Queens–Midtown Tunnel will have to pay the $15 fee plus the $6.94 toll. A $5 toll credit makes up most of it for a total of $16.94. However, leaving the zone will cost nothing on the bridges, but $6.94 in either tunnel, giving drivers a small incentive to toll shop inbound and a hefty incentive to toll shop outbound.

Having an inbound-only toll of $13.88 will eliminate half of the problem (on the outbound side). And a full toll credit of $13.88 would let drivers use the most efficient route in both directions, reducing traffic and pollution (two of the goals of what congestion pricing is intended to accomplish).

There is no similar argument regarding the two Hudson River tunnels, the Lincoln and Holland, run by the Port Authority. While they have long had an inbound-only toll (now $14.75), there are no equivalent bridges, therefore any toll shopping is impossible. We could be nasty and urge the MTA to give a zero toll credit to the PA tunnels in order to provide the full $13.88 credit for the East River tunnels. Murphy would love that, we’re sure.

Other changes should be around the timing of the congestion fee. While the board smartly recommended charging less at night, the proposed sharply discounted 75% fee of only $3.75 between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. should be more gradual, as we don’t want those people planning to drive in at 8:30 waiting until 9. Why not make it free in the dead of night, from midnight to 4 a.m. and extra high, say $18 or $20, during peak of the morning rush hour?

That’s the concept of the father of congestion pricing, Columbia economics Prof. Bill Vickrey, who won the 1996 Nobel Prize and then died three days later.

New York has limited space to operate private vehicles in Midtown and Downtown, so charge drivers accordingly, on a sliding scale. The highest fee should be at the height of the a.m. rush and there should be no fee when traffic is the lightest in the wee hours.

Still, we don’t mean to quibble, having championed congestion pricing for decades. We are almost there, making for a better ride for drivers and better transit for everyone.

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