MTA struggled to answer questions about congestion pricing tolls 5 years in the making

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Five years after congestion pricing was signed into law, the MTA has held more than a dozen public hearings, released a 4,000-page analysis and fielded countless inquiries from elected officials and the press.

So after hearing from numerous confused New Yorkers, we expected transit officials to easily answer a few questions about whether certain areas within the congestion zone south of 60th Street would be tolled.

What followed was one of the more bizarre exchanges either of us have ever had with the MTA in our combined 10-plus years covering transit in New York City.

The MTA struggled to answer whether drivers on the Brooklyn Bridge would be tolled if they went to the FDR Drive going in either direction. At one point, different MTA officials gave us different answers.

The MTA’s press office also directed us to a map laying out the locations of tolling cameras in the environmental assessment for congestion pricing, saying it would clear up our question.

It didn’t. The map didn’t clearly identify where a set of tolling cameras will be placed along the bridge’s many on and off ramps.

After two weeks of asking, the MTA finally gave a definitive answer: Drivers on the Brooklyn Bridge taking the FDR north won’t have to pay a toll. Drivers on the Brooklyn Bridge taking the FDR south must pass over a local street, meaning they will be tolled.

That nuance seemingly conflicted with the MTA’s repeated statements that drivers on the FDR Drive would be exempt from the tolls.

And the Brooklyn Bridge wasn’t the only point in the congestion zone that hadn’t been clearly explained over the last five years.

The MTA also said there is one way to avoid the toll when entering Manhattan on the Queensboro Bridge. On the Manhattan-bound side of the crossing, ramps send vehicles to one of three locations. There’s one ramp that lets off between 59th and 60th Streets, another on the south side of 60th street, and a third that dumps drivers on 62nd Street, which is north of the congestion zone.

The MTA said the 62nd Street exit — only accessible by a ramp on the bridge’s upper level — wouldn’t be tolled. That detail isn’t included on the MTA’s website on congestion pricing, and was buried in the environmental assessment for the program.

Like the Brooklyn Bridge, that exemption seemed to fly in the face of the law approving congestion pricing. The legislation only allows for exemptions on FDR Drive, the West Side Highway, Battery Park Underpass and any surface road of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel that connects to West Street.

The ramp from the Queensboro Bridge seems to start in the congestion zone, but is elevated above the street and drops riders off at 62nd Street, so an argument could be made that it didn’t appear to fit any of those exemptions. It took the MTA days to clarify why it was carved out.

MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan eventually said that while the ramp may be located south of 60th Street, it doesn’t touch down in the “terra firme” of the congestion relief zone. That terminology was not used in the 2019 law.

Rachael Fauss, an analyst at the good government watchdog Reinvent Albany, credited the MTA for its ample outreach on congestion pricing — but said the 2019 law that authorized the program simply didn’t provide enough specifics as to how the tolls would function.

“I think there’s a really big gap between how nitty gritty implementation happens versus the law giving really broad parameters for how these things are supposed to work,” Fauss said.

Former city traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz pointed out that the FDR confusion only exists because mid-20th century road builder Robert Moses — immortalized as New York’s “Power Broker” — didn’t make good on a plan to build a ramp from the Brooklyn Bridge to the southbound side of the drive.

MTA officials said they plan to launch a major education campaign to inform the public about all the details of the tolling program. And they’ll start to put up signage on the roadway informing drivers where they’ll pay, and where they won’t.

But the efficacy of that campaign remains to be seen. And after our bizarre experience extracting answers on who will be tolled on the bridges that send close to 20% of traffic into the zone each day, we’re left wondering what other surprises await drivers once congestion pricing goes into effect.

Curious Commuter


Will congestion pricing lower the number of government employees who congest Lower Manhattan streets by parking free of charge? Or are they exempt from congestion pricing?

—Lew Perin, Brooklyn


Very few government employees will be exempt from the new tolls, but some government vehicles conducting official city business will not be charged. Transit workers, police officers and teachers driving in their personal vehicles to work will all have to pay. The program, however, doesn’t solve the widespread problem of placard abuse. The enforcement of that problem lies on city agencies and the NYPD — but a report from the city Department of Investigation earlier this month found drivers abusing parking privileges rarely receive summonses for their infractions.

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