New York Might Charge Cars $11.52 to Enter Manhattan—And Drivers Should Love It

The Fix NYC congestion pricing plan could be a boon for driving enthusiasts in the New York area. 

Kay Nietfeld/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Late on Thursday evening, The New York Times hurled up a story on its website that seemed prime to light a fire under the ass of every automotive enthusiast within driving distance of New York City: A panel put together for Governor Andrew Cuomo had dropped its long-anticipated congestion pricing proposal for the city. The Old Gray Lady's headline said it all: "Driving a Car in Manhattan Could Cost $11.52 Under Congestion Plan."

In broad strokes, the Fix NYC proposal officially released on Friday would establish a pay-to-drive cordon around the lower third of Manhattan—the city streets below 60th Street, traditionally viewed as the border between the mostly-residential uptown and the largely-commercial downtown. There wouldn't be toll booths to clog things up; instead, drivers would be billed either via their wireless toll transponders (known on the East Coast as E-ZPass) or by having a bill sent to the address registered to the car's license plate. Passenger vehicles would pay $11.52 to enter the central business district, whereas commercial trucks would pay $25.34. Taxis, Ubers, Lyfts, and other for-hire vehicles would be subject to a fee of between $2 and $5. (However, the proposal mentions that "variable and dynamic" prices should be considered, presumably to encourage travel during off-peak hours by reducing the costs at those times.)

 

Google Maps / Will Sabel Courtney

The proposed area that would be subjected to the congestion charge. 

Now, if you're a fellow lover of cars and driving, your immediate reaction to this was likely something along the lines of visceral outrage. How dare that pinko governor tell us we have to pay almost $12 just to drive into the city! What is this, communist Russia? If I want to jam my 22-foot-long, $100,000 Ford Super Duty down the throat of the West Village, that's my God-given right as an American.

But, when you stop and thinking about it...this congestion pricing plan could be the best thing to happen to New York's driving enthusiasts in a long time. 

In this case, the angel is in the details. While the basic idea would seem to leave the 8 million residents of the geographical area known as Long Island (which, technically, includes both two boroughs of NYC as well as the two counties commonly referred to as "Long Island") with no toll-free way to drive off the...well, the very long island, the Fix NYC plan specifies that travel on the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive highway—commonly known as "the FDR"—should not be tolled, and the four East Rivers bridges that are currently free should remain that way. That means anyone coming in from Brooklyn or Queens on the Brooklyn Bridge—which connects directly to the FDR—and the 59th Street Bridge, which spits cars out north of the congestion zone. 

Assuming a small but meaningful percentage of the current vehicles currently clogging up the FDR at all hours of the day are there because of trips to the central business district (CBD) that wouldn't take place under the Fix NYC plan, and drivers from Brooklyn, Queens, and points farther east might actually wind up with quicker trips north overall. Which would be quite the boon for the thousands of car lovers who reside in those areas, as the best driving roads all lie on the far side of the Gordian Knot of traffic that ties together Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. Getting the people who don't really need to drive but do simply for convenience off the road would open it up for those of us who really want to drive. 

Likewise, pulling some cars off the roads would help ease the crushing burden on the city's streets, which have degenerated to Third World conditions. When I was in Detroit recently for the North American International Auto Show, my Uber driver started cracking wise about the city's potholes; I started to laugh along...until I realized the streets around me were in better shape than the ones in my hometown. The sheer scale of the problem (New York City has a bit more than 6,000 miles of road) means keeping up with repairs to mend the damage wrought by the insane traffic is all but quixotic...and even when the city does fix the streets, they have to close the lanes to do so, which just generates even more traffic. And we New Yorkers do not handle traffic well. 

The Fix NYC plan would have secondary benefits, too. It would also involve cracking down on moving violations like running red lights, defective brake lights, and improper turns, all of which constitute generally irresponsible forms of driving most automotive enthusiasts would condemn. Furthermore, charging a fee that keeps folks from driving into Manhattan's congested streets likely means that, when you do actually have to enter the toll zone, you'll likely be able to find a parking space on the street much more easily than today. Considering parking garages in the affected part of Manhattan easily charge $15-$20 per hour or more, that $11.52 you spent to enter the CBD could seem like a bargain very quickly if it means there's a spot right on 5th Avenue. Hell, even if you have to pay $3.50 an hour for a metered spot, it's still liable to wind up saving you money. 

And, as a value-add, the FIX NYC plan suggests the money raised by the congestion charge be piped over to the city's ailing subway—which has degenerated to such a sorry state of affairs that it's all but certain to have contributed to the traffic mess. With trains constantly running on unpredictable schedules and suffering all-but-inevitable delays, those who have easy access to a car and can drive into Manhattan have all the more reason to do so. Fix the subways, and many of those folks will go back to them—and traffic will start to go down. Better yet, the plan states that the congestion charge not be implemented on all vehicles until after the subways have been restored to better standards, thus avoiding an awkward period where there's no good way at all to enter the city.

There are parts of the proposal that aren't great. The fact that residents of Midtown and Lower Manhattan would have to pay full price under the current proposal seems unfair; short of subsidizing massive parking lots outside the CBD for these folks, charging them less to cross in and out seems like a reasonable solution. (That said, considering most Manhattanites with cars will cling to street parking spots with demonic tenacity once they've found them, it seems likely most of these folks would be driving in and out of the zone on a limited basis.)

And, as many of the plan's opponents are loudly pointing out, a congestion charge is something of a regressive tax—it affects the poor more drastically than the rich, because $11.52 per day is a way bigger chunk of a Dunkin' Donuts barista's paycheck than it is for a Goldman Sachs trader. Which, yes, is true in principle, but falls apart in real life—because most New Yorkers don't own cars. Only 45.5 percent of the city's 3 million households have a private vehicle, according to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign's analysis of U.S. Census data. 57 percent of city residents commute by mass transit; just 26 percent drive themselves to the job. And many of those folks aren't headed into the congestion price zone for work. Even in Staten Island—the only borough where a majority of people commute via car—only 5.8 percent of workers drive themselves into the CBD every day

And to counter the regressive tax argument, lower-income residents are far less likely to have a vehicle than those in higher tax brackets to begin with in NYC—so they're much less likely to be affected by the toll. Indeed, that's often what draws people in those lower socioeconomic sectors to New York—a city with some of the highest costs of living in America—in the first place. Part of the city's appeal is that it's one of the few locations in America where it's possible to live a full, healthy life without a car. Cars are expensive items; NYC allows lower- and middle-class people to go without them without being at a disadvantage. 

Clearly, something has to be done to fix New York's transit problems. According to an analysis by the non-profit group Partnership for New York City, traffic congestion is sucking $20 billion out of the city's economy per year; likewise, the cavalcade of subway delays is costing the city around $1.2 million per day in lost work time, according to the city's Independent Budget Office. The subway needs more money; the city needs less traffic. Congestion pricing could help solve both problems...and make New York City a little sweeter for people who love to drive, in the process.