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New York City Congestion Pricing Plan Could Give Poor Drivers a Discount

As congestion pricing in New York City moves closer to reality, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has finalized a plan to give the city’s neediest drivers a discount and to distribute traffic more evenly by reducing overnight tolls.

The M.T.A. on Friday released a report showing that the authority intends to limit the number of times that drivers of taxis and for-hire vehicles are tolled, give certain low-income drivers a discount, increase discounts for those driving into the area overnight and periodically check on small businesses in the tolling zone to see if the tolls become an impediment.

The tolling program would be the first of its kind in the nation and is intended to reduce traffic by charging drivers to enter the busiest parts of Manhattan. It cleared a major hurdle this month after the Federal Highway Administration tentatively approved the M.T.A.’s report, known as an environmental assessment, which identifies ways to mitigate any harm congestion pricing may pose on disadvantaged communities.

The public has until June 12 to weigh in on the report — which is tens of thousands of pages — before the federal government gives the document its final approval, paving the way for the M.T.A. to come up with toll rates, including any discounts, exemptions and other allowances.

Once that happens, the M.T.A. says the tolling program, which would affect drivers entering Manhattan south of 60th Street, could begin as soon as spring 2024.

“Congestion pricing means less traffic, cleaner air, safer streets, better transit,” Janno Lieber, the authority’s chairman, said Thursday during a news conference.

Advocates, community leaders and urban planning experts on Friday celebrated the progress and said congestion pricing was long overdue.

“For decades, New York City has struggled with crushing traffic congestion, which pollutes the air we breathe, clogs our roads, damages our communities and weakens our economy,” Tom Wright, the president of the Regional Plan Association, a research and advocacy group, said in a statement. “We are one step closer to finally addressing this issue and implementing a policy which will benefit drivers, transit riders and communities alike.”

Taxi, Lyft and Uber drivers have criticized the tolling program, noting that the M.T.A.’s own research has shown that fare increases prompted by the tolls could slash demand for cabs and for-hire rides by up to 17 percent, frustrating drivers who say they are already struggling to get by. To lessen their burden, the new report says those drivers would not be tolled more than once per day.

Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which calls for better working conditions for taxi and app-based drivers, vowed to fight the proposal, arguing that yellow cabs should be exempt entirely.

“Once a day is still thousands of dollars a year for struggling drivers,” Ms. Desai said. “This is just a money grab off the backs of a working class work force that labors 60 hours a week to survive.”

The M.T.A. hasn’t set a fee scale yet, but an initial version of the report that it released in August showed that some proposals under review would charge $23 for a rush-hour trip into the tolling zone and $17 during off-peak hours for E-ZPass holders.

Under the final proposal, drivers who earn an annual salary of $50,000 or less or are enrolled in certain government assistance programs would get a 25 percent discount on tolls after making 10 trips per month through the tolling zone, for the first five years that the program is in effect.

The discount would not apply to overnight tolls, which would already be deeply discounted. A 2022 study by the Community Service Society of New York, an anti-poverty group, found that only about 5,000 working New Yorkers in poverty would regularly incur tolls under congestion pricing.

Officials would also ensure the overnight toll rate, which would be in effect between at least midnight through 4 a.m., is at least 50 percent lower than peak toll rates. The goal is to benefit low-income drivers who can travel at that time and to encourage commercial vehicles to drive during off-peak hours, distributing traffic more evenly throughout the day.

The money raised through congestion pricing would be used for infrastructure upgrades, like building new elevators in the subway system and modernizing dated signals that are supposed to keep trains moving. The program is expected to generate $1 billion annually to improve the transit network, according to the M.T.A.

When the M.T.A. released the first draft of the environmental assessment last year, critics were dismayed by evidence that some of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods could end up with dirtier air from all the diverted traffic. The final version formally commits millions of dollars in investments for those communities, including $20 million for a program to fight asthma and $10 million to install air filtration units in schools near highways.

The report also says the authority plans to set up periodic meetings with small businesses in the congestion pricing zone before and after the program’s rollout to assess whether the tolls are negatively affecting commerce.

The tolling program faces its most vociferous opposition from suburbanites who worry that it could place an unfair burden on people who travel to Manhattan for work.

Some, including Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, have threatened legal action if the plan continues to advance.

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