New Jersey Governor Seeks to Slow New York’s Congestion Pricing Effort

Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey has said that New York’s congestion pricing proposal threatens to harm commuters from his state.Credit...
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A proposal to curb traffic on Manhattan’s busiest streets by adding new tolls has stirred broad opposition from the city’s taxi industry and drivers who live outside the area. But its biggest threat now seems to be coming from farther afield: New Jersey.

Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, who last month asked the transportation secretary to intervene, has now taken his case directly to President Biden, complaining about the added costs for drivers and the inability of the existing mass transit infrastructure to handle extra riders.

Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, said he spoke last week at the White House to Mr. Biden, a political ally. He asked that the federal government complete a full environmental impact study before the new tolls are implemented.

Mr. Murphy has said that New Jersey residents were not properly consulted about the plan, and he has argued that it would harm people who “cannot afford to live in Manhattan and must travel great lengths to reach their workplace.”

“It gets all parties at the table, and it does it in a smart, comprehensive way,” Mr. Murphy said on Wednesday about his request for a study. Mr. Biden was expected to attend a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser on Thursday night at Mr. Murphy’s home in New Jersey.

Any additional federal review would come on top of an already completed assessment and, if granted, would almost certainly delay the ambitious project that is expected to bolster the struggling Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s bottom line while getting people out of cars and onto mass transit.

A spokesperson for the Federal Highway Administration said the agency’s determination on the new tolls would be based on “completed” analysis and the public comments collected after the release of the existing environmental assessment. After federal approval, the final decision on the program will be made by the M.T.A.

The plan, known as congestion pricing, is the first of its kind in the country and is scheduled to begin in 2024. It is expected to raise $1 billion every year, earmarked for M.T.A. infrastructure improvements.

Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York, who controls the M.T.A., did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Murphy’s direct appeal to Mr. Biden represents an escalation of a skirmish that had been building between the two neighboring states with a long history of similar clashes.

Last year, the two states fought for months over how to divide $14 billion in federal relief funds for transit systems before reaching a settlement. And in 2010, New Jersey’s governor at the time, Chris Christie, canceled a fully funded tunnel under the Hudson River that was a precursor to the Gateway tunnel project now expected to take another 13 years.

The new congestion fees would come in addition to tunnel and bridge tolls and apply to vehicles entering Manhattan between 60th Street and the Battery. Vehicles traveling along the F.D.R. Drive and the West Side Highway would not be charged the toll.

The cost could vary depending on the type of vehicle entering Manhattan and the time of travel. Final fees have not been set, but an environmental assessment released by the M.T.A. in August suggested the tolls could be as high as $17 during off-peak hours and $23 during the morning and evening rush.

That assessment ran 4,000 pages and in part concluded that motorists detouring around the new tolls could add traffic and soot to parts of the Bronx, Staten Island, Nassau County on Long Island and Bergen County in New Jersey.

“By their own admission it’s leading to more congestion and more pollution, and they say it will hurt harder-pressed families,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat who represents northern New Jersey and has long been a vocal opponent of congestion pricing.

“It should be called the cash-grab proposal. All the M.T.A. wants is New Jersey’s hard-earned money. They have a budget hole and they need to fill the hole and they’re turning New Jersey into their piggy bank,” he said.

The authority expects to face a $2.5 billion deficit in 2025, which amounts to 12 percent of its operating budget.

Because the congestion pricing program would collect tolls on federally funded roads, it is subject to oversight from Washington.

The recently completed environmental assessment was done at the request of the U.S. Department of Transportation, which required an analysis of whether the tolls would cause significant harm to the environment. The environmental impact study Mr. Murphy now wants would be a more rigorous review.

Asked last month about Mr. Murphy’s objections to the tolling program, Janno Lieber, chairman of the M.T.A., noted that Mr. Biden had “prioritized climate change action.”

He said he was confident that the federal transportation department would not seek to delay the program.

“We are the first-in-the-nation initiative to deal with traffic and its air-quality consequences, as well as economic consequences,” Mr. Lieber said.

Supporters of the program said a postponement would be harmful to the region.

“Every day we wait means less money for new purchases of electric buses, station accessibility improvements, signal upgrades — things that would allow more reliable transit service and a better transportation system overall,” said Kate Slevin, the executive vice president at Regional Plan Association, an urban policy group. “And traffic levels are up to pre-Covid levels. We need tools to be able to manage that traffic and noise and emissions.”

The simmering border war between the states related to transportation issues appeared to boil over last month, when lawmakers in New York introduced a pair of bills that would charge drivers from New Jersey a $50 fee when they drive into New York City. The legislation came in response to a bill that passed unanimously in the New Jersey Senate, which would, if adopted, prevent the state from helping New York enforce red light and speed camera tickets against New Jersey drivers.

In a letter last month to Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, Mr. Murphy suggested that projects to add a train tunnel under the Hudson River and to build a bigger bus terminal in Midtown Manhattan could reduce traffic in the city. But both of those proposals would cost billions of dollars and are many years from completion.

The two projects, which are not yet under construction, were responses to the steady growth in the number of commuters to the city from New Jersey in the years leading up to the pandemic.

Mr. Murphy has also said that the proposed cost structure of the congestion pricing program would lead drivers to go “toll shopping” — avoiding the George Washington Bridge in favor of the tunnel crossings, where the pricing credit could be larger.

“This diversion would simply shift carbon emissions from affluent TriBeCa and Times Square into North Jersey communities such as Union City, Jersey City and Newark,” he wrote to Mr. Buttigieg.

New York transit advocates scoffed at Mr. Murphy’s attempts and urged the Biden administration not to take heed.

“Respectfully, there’s been a lot more heat than light coming from across the river,” said Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for Riders Alliance, a grass-roots organization of transit riders.

“Since long before most New Yorkers were born, we’ve been paying tolls in New Jersey. There’s no reason that the president, or anyone in his administration, should hold up the plan to fix the subway because of Gov. Murphy’s misplaced concerns.”

In 2019, the trans-Hudson commuting network was strained to the breaking point. Trains and buses crossing into Midtown were filled beyond their intended capacity, as were Pennsylvania Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Trains were frequently delayed by equipment failures in the existing North River tunnels, which were built more than a century ago.

To ease the crunch, officials in the two states developed plans for Gateway, a sprawling project that would involve adding tracks to Penn Station to accommodate the additional trains that would pass through the new tunnel.

The Obama administration supported Gateway, but it stalled during the term of former President Donald J. Trump. Gateway has regained momentum during the Biden administration, but the two states and the federal government still have not completed a funding agreement.

In late August, the Gateway Development Commission raised the estimated cost of the tunnel by $2 billion to $16.1 billion and pushed back its expected completion to 2035.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is planning to rebuild its bus terminal in Midtown at a cost that it has said could reach $10 billion. That project is scheduled for completion in 2031.

Commuting from New Jersey has recovered gradually since the pandemic wiped it out in 2020. Ridership on New Jersey Transit’s trains has risen to about 60 percent of prepandemic levels but the agency does not expect it to fully recover for several years. The Port Authority’s PATH train, which connects Northern New Jersey to Manhattan, is also carrying about 60 percent of its prepandemic passenger loads.

Liam Blank, policy and communications manager for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an advocacy group that supports congestion pricing, called Mr. Murphy’s request a “perversion of the environmental-impact process.”

“It’s clearly going to benefit the environment,” Mr. Blank said. “I think it’s a delay game here that he’s trying to play.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-10-07 02:37:29 -0700