Adams wavers on congestion pricing plan as MTA set to formally recommend $15 toll

Mayor Eric Adams at an East Harlem town hall on Dec. 4, 2023.
Benny Polatseck | Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor Eric Adams is hesitant to support the current proposal for New York City’s congestion pricing program, proposing policy changes ahead of a vote by the MTA Board to recommend a $15 toll for entering lower Manhattan.

The mayor told reporters Tuesday that he’s miffed over the Traffic Mobility Review Board’s (TMRB) recommendations for the “two yellows,” taxis and school buses, both of which he feels should be fully exempt from tolls to cross into Manhattan south of 60th Street.

“We’re really focusing on our two yellows: school buses and yellow taxi cabs,” Adams said at his weekly press briefing at City Hall on Tuesday. “We want the process to take them into consideration.”

Hizzoner has long been a public supporter of congestion pricing, but has been notably ambivalent since the TMRB released its recommendations last week. Although the MTA is eager to be done with reviews and get the program underway, the mayor has said repeatedly this week that there are still kinks to be worked out.

“This is part of the ongoing conversation, this is new, congestion pricing that we’re about to roll out, and we want to get it right,” said Hizzoner. “And there’s gonna be some shifting, there’s gonna be some negotiation, there’s gonna be some additional conversations that’s gonna come out of this.”

The mayor and administration officials still voice support for congestion pricing conceptually. But the mayor’s rep on the TMRB, Transport Workers Union president John Samuelsen, resigned rather than give his imprimatur to the recommendations, and on Tuesday, no administration officials were present at a rally in Union Square supporting congestion pricing, which was attended by Gov. Kathy Hochul and MTA chief Janno Lieber, among others.

After months of deliberation, the TMRB — an internal MTA body tasked with recommending rates and policies for the first-in-the-nation congestion pricing program — called for most motorists to be charged $15 to enter Manhattan’s central business district by car, with the aim of reducing choking gridlock and carbon emissions and raising money for MTA infrastructure initiatives.

Gov. Hochul headlines a rally in support of the TMRB congestion pricing proposal.Don Pollard/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

The MTA Board will vote on whether to advance the TMRB recommendations on Wednesday. If the vote is successful, the proposal will be subject to several months of public comment before a final vote by the MTA Board in 2024. The agency hopes to have the program up and running by the spring, and says it has already installed about 60% of the infrastructure for levying tolls.

The board ignored most of the dozens of formal requests for exemptions or discounts, but gave close consideration to calls for relief from yellow taxi drivers, who already have surcharges added onto fares for driving into Manhattan. Their cause was championed by a slew of elected officials.

The board opted to pass the charge onto riders, not drivers, and ultimately recommended that passengers in yellow taxis be levied an additional $1.25 per trip to, from, or within the Manhattan CBD. For rideshare services like Uber and Lyft, the surcharge rises to $2.50 per fare.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), a union repping some 25,000 cabbies, said the TMRB had put forward “a reckless proposal that will devastate an entire workforce” and has called for a full exemption, arguing the surcharge would lead to fewer fares. On Tuesday, NYTWA executive director Bhairavi Desai said Adams “is taking the right position and we are grateful for the support and motivated by it.”

“The economic damage of less trips and less income would mean long-term instability, debt and a cycle of poverty we are just so damn sick of,” said Desai. “The MTA needs to follow the lead of the Mayor of the city where the fees will be collected and exempt taxis.”

On the other hand, the fate of school buses is not specifically addressed in the TMRB’s recommendations. The recommendations call for the exemption of “buses providing transit or commuter services,” like MTA or New Jersey Transit buses, but an MTA spokesperson couldn’t immediately confirm if that includes yellow school buses.

School buses in the city are operated by a slew of private companies under contract with the Department of Education. For most younger students, transportation to school by yellow bus is a right guaranteed by the government. Along with emergency vehicles and transit for people with disabilities, “specialized government vehicles” are eligible for exemptions. If they’re not exempted, school buses could be levied either $24 or $36, depending if they’re classified as small or large commercial vehicles.

The mayor also sought to distinguish what he saw as people driving into Manhattan “on necessity” versus those doing so “on luxury,” and contended the plan should not displace polluting traffic into outer borough areas that have long borne the brunt of environmental racism.

The MTA’s immense environmental assessment for congestion pricing called for considerable investments in places like the Bronx to mitigate potential upswings in traffic volume there, like air filtration units in schools and charging infrastructure for electric trucks at the Hunts Point Market.

Lieber declined to specifically comment Tuesday on Hizzoner’s critiques of the plan. Lieber has previously defended the robustness of the public review process for the program, calling it “the most extensive review process maybe in history” and claiming to have studied the potential impact on “every intersection from here to Philadelphia.”

“New York City [Department of Transportation] was a partner at every stage in the process,” Lieber said following the rally on Tuesday. “We’re happy to listen, but at this stage, we’re pretty far along. The mayor did have a representative on the [TMRB]. The board has now come out with its recommendation, and we’re going to be acting on them tomorrow.”