Congestion Pricing Is Coming to New York. New Jersey Wants Revenge.

By Emma G. Fitzsimmons


April 16, 2019

Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey said he would fight any effort to double toll drivers who use the George Washington Bridge and then travel into Manhattan’s congestion pricing zone.


New York and New Jersey are neighbors, but they have not always treated each other in a neighborly way. Their proximity and pride have led to plenty of fights — over who can lay claim to Ellis Island (both actually), which state has the best pizza (still raging) and the proper way to get gasoline (solo vs. full service).

But the latest chapter in this rivalry might be among the nastiest.

New York recently approved congestion pricing, a plan to make it more expensive to drive into the heart of Manhattan. Officials in New Jersey are enraged and have griped, half-jokingly, that it will cost less to travel to California than to cross the Hudson River.

And they are vowing revenge.

The mayor of Jersey City suggested that New Jerseyans should toll New Yorkers entering their state. A congressman is calling for federal legislation to guarantee that drivers — who already pay tolls to cross between the states — are not charged twice. Others believe a lawsuit could be filed to stop the tolls.

“We are a little confounded about why suddenly New York would turn around and take a two-by-four to New Jersey,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat who represents a slice of New Jersey suburbs near Manhattan and plans to introduce a bill he hopes will pressure New York to give his state’s drivers a break.

Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat, said he would fight any effort to double toll drivers using the George Washington Bridge, the world’s busiest span.

“I won’t stand for it,” he told reporters, though he stopped short of summoning what he called a full “Jersey attitude” like other leaders seeking payback.

If New Jerseyans expected a more confrontational response, they might be nostalgic for Chris Christie, the hold-no-punches former governor who recently attacked Mr. Murphy for allowing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York to steamroll New Jersey.

“Andrew Cuomo is walking all over us across the river with his congestion pricing stuff,” Mr. Christie, a Republican, said at a recent dinner, adding that Mr. Murphy was “not a fighter.”

Starting in early 2021, vehicles entering Manhattan below 60th Street will pay a toll to raise money to fix New York City’s beleaguered subway. While the fees have not been set, some experts believe it could cost about $14, igniting a fight among interest groups to win exemptions or discounts.

About 115,000 people drive from New Jersey into Manhattan below 60th Street every weekday — about 13 percent of the 880,000 people who drive into the congestion zone, according to a 2017 count by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, a prominent planning agency. That does not include an additional 150,000 people who cross the George Washington Bridge each day, from New Jersey to New York, many of whom are also destined for the congestion zone.

Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat in his third term, will have power in deciding who gets tolled because he controls the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the New York transit agency that will determine the tolls and exemptions. Mr. Cuomo, who chose the authority’s new chairman, Patrick J. Foye, and the subway’s leader, Andy Byford, exerts great influence over the agency’s priorities.

Mr. Cuomo says the tolls are needed to unclog Manhattan’s streets and to pay for critical upgrades to the subway. His budget director, Robert Mujica, did not have much sympathy for New Jersey drivers, saying they should consider abandoning their cars and taking public transit instead.

“New Jersey commuters aren’t being treated any differently,” Mr. Mujica said in an interview. “They’re being treated the same as everyone else driving into the Central Business District.”

Furious drivers and elected officials might have few options aside from lobbying Mr. Cuomo and transit leaders. Other groups have started jockeying for favors. Leaders on Staten Island want a discount for drivers using the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge so they are not tolled twice. Police officers are calling for an exemption when they drive to work.

But the outcry is perhaps loudest in New Jersey, a place that some say has a chip on its shoulder when it comes to New York. “I’m waiting for the Oxygen tax,” one man vented on Facebook. “That’s fine,” another man wrote. “I’ll never drive there again.”

Drivers already pay as much as $15 to use the Lincoln and Holland tunnels or the George Washington Bridge to enter Manhattan. Some might switch to New Jersey Transit, the state’s commuter railroad and bus network. But the system is often no more reliable than the subway and also suffers from years of neglect.

For that reason, some New Jersey leaders, including Loretta Weinberg, the Senate majority leader, argue that it would only be fair for New Jersey Transit to get a cut of the revenue from congestion pricing.

Ms. Weinberg had suggested partly in jest that it would soon be “cheaper to fly to California” after seeing ads for $79 flights from Newark to Los Angeles.

“The point is, it’s becoming so expensive to go eight miles from Teaneck, New Jersey, to New York,” said Ms. Weinberg, who lives in Teaneck, just west of the George Washington Bridge.

The New York legislation included just a few loopholes, including one for drivers using the West Side Highway and Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, roadways on each side of Manhattan. Emergency vehicles and those carrying disabled people are also exempt. People who live in the congestion zone and earn less than $60,000 a year can receive a tax credit. A six-member “traffic mobility review” board will make other recommendations to the authority.

The idea of tolling New York drivers who enter New Jersey — proposed by Steven Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City — would be difficult because a clause in the Constitution bans states from restricting interstate commerce.

Mr. Gottheimer, the New Jersey congressman, thinks he might have found another way. He plans to introduce a bill this week that could cut federal funding to New York or the transportation authority if New Jersey drivers are forced to pay two tolls for one trip into Manhattan.

“I don't look at it as retaliation,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “I look at it as encouraging continued cooperation.”

There is a precedent — the reason the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge is tolled in one direction, instead of both ways, is because of a 1985 federal law. Guy V. Molinari, a Republican representative from Staten Island, got Congress to pass a measure that would cost New York State 1 percent of its federal highway money if the Verrazzano toll was not adjusted.

Mr. Murphy, a Democrat elected in 2017, said he was trying to schedule a call with Mr. Cuomo. Mr. Murphy promised he would have “a steel backbone” on behalf of drivers, but wanted to avoid “a tit for tat reality.”

Transit experts believe drivers using the Lincoln and Holland tunnels will not be made to pay the full congestion charge. But if the tunnels are less expensive than other crossings, drivers could switch to the tunnels, leading to paralyzing traffic jams.

“You don't want to make traffic worse on the Jersey side because you’re giving the credits to some and not to others,” said Bruce Schaller, a former New York City transportation official who agrees with Ms. Weinberg that some of the revenue should go to New Jersey Transit.

Instead of kvetching, leaders in New Jersey should focus on improving their transportation network before congestion pricing takes effect, said Charles Komanoff, a transportation expert who helped conceive of congestion pricing in New York.

“We are all painfully aware of New Jersey Transit’s problems, but my God, in 21 months buses can be mobilized and the miles of highway into the Lincoln and Holland tunnels can be reconfigured,” he said. “The silver lining that it’s going to take so long to put this into effect is that there is ample time to deploy your alternatives.”

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