The MTA board is set to vote on the toll structure for congestion pricing on Wednesday – and now Mayor Eric Adams is ready to pump the brakes.
Last week, an MTA advisory panel recommended a $15 base fare for the landmark plan to toll drivers entering Manhattan south of 60th Street. Adams responded by calling the proposal “the beginning of the conversation.”
“Now is time to hear from community, to deliberate and to make the determination of who is going to be exempted, who’s not going to be exempted,” Adams said.
His remark came four-and-a-half years after congestion pricing was signed into law, and four months after the first in a series of marathon public hearings on the program that featured remarks from Adams’ own Department of Transportation. A key subject of the hearings was who should be exempt from the tolls.
Adams said he supports congestion pricing, but argued that full exemptions should be granted to taxi drivers, people traveling to medical appointments and school buses.
Political observers said Adams was attempting to distance himself from the inevitable backlash over the cost. Rachael Fauss, a senior research analyst with the good government group Reinvent Albany, noted that the city’s transportation department plays a role in the installation of toll gantries on Manhattan streets and provided data used in the MTA’s analyses of traffic patterns.
“I think it’s trying to have it both ways,” said Fauss. “His administration is helping to implement the program as we speak. But once a toll number comes up and you start talking about real dollars that people will be charged, it’s certainly more convenient, politically, to start questioning it, even while his own administration is doing good work to move the program forward.”
John Samuelsen, the international president of the Transport Workers Union and Adams’ appointee to the six-member MTA advisory panel known as the Traffic Mobility Review Board, has also questioned the structure of congestion pricing tolls.
Samuelsen resigned in protest hours before the final recommendations were issued.
“My resignation was not done in conjunction with the mayor. I didn’t ask for anybody’s permission,” Samuelsen said.
Samuelsen said he wants different exemptions from the mayor. He argued that drivers who already pay tolls on the Verrazzano and Marine Parkway bridges should get a discount after entering the Manhattan tolling zone. And he said the MTA should provide improved service once congestion pricing goes into effect.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that the mayor condones the positions that I’ve taken, but if he was smart, he would pay serious attention to the positions that I’ve taken,” Samuelsen said.
Adams also has a vacant seat on the MTA board set to vote on the advisory panel’s recommendations. Adams’ appointee, Sherif Soliman, quietly resigned in September, Streetsblog reported. The mayor nominates four members of the board.
Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, said the congestion pricing debates have reached the end of the road.
“On paper, is it the end of the conversation? Yes. Unless you are in the political world,” Gelinas said.
By law, the MTA must hold a round of public hearings, similar to when it has a fare and toll increase, and then the board will hold one more final vote.
If there are additional exemptions, the $15 base toll rate for vehicles could increase.