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Opinion: Congestion pricing would fuel pollution on Lower East Side

BY KATHRYN FREED | Congestion pricing is coming. Most people either love it or hate it. Most of us acknowledge the need to reduce traffic and pollution, but are not sure the current proposal does that. This op-ed will examine the plan’s impacts on the Lower East Side, specifically the area next to the F.D.R. Drive from the Brooklyn Bridge to E. 10th Street.

Congestion pricing (CP) was passed by the New York State Legislature and signed into effect in April 2019. The intent was to raise money, about $1 billion per year, up to at least $15 billion, for the transit system, and devise a scheme to cut the number of vehicles in the Central Business District by tolling vehicles that enter it. The CBD is Manhattan from the Battery to 60th Street, minus the F.D.R. Drive, the West Side Highway and the Hugh Carey (Brooklyn-Battery) Tunnel.

In June, after fast-tracking by the Biden administration, New York State got the go-ahead to proceed with CP, after an Environmental Assessment rather than a more stringent Environmental Impact Statement. Several federal lawsuits have been filed contesting this determination, most notably by New Jersey. Several more are in the works. One group is actively exploring suing based on what it calls a tax on city residents, especially those living in or near the CBD. For more information on that group, check

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, recognizing the projected additional pollution CP would cause in the South Bronx, has agreed to provide around $130 million in mitigation measures, including an asthma center, to try to reduce pollution or its impact on South Bronx residents. The M.T.A. has represented that it has about $20 million to deal with the effects of pollution in Manhattan, especially in the CBD.

But the M.T.A. has not indicated it’s willing to make any special efforts to reduce pollution on the Lower East Side, even though its own projections show CP will drastically increase traffic and pollution in parts of our community. The E.A. established seven alternative-pricing schemes and one “No Action” proposal. Each scheme, according to the M.T.A.’s own figures, would raise congestion and pollution amounts in the area — along the F.D.R. Drive, Brooklyn Bridge to 10th Street — at least 5 percent or greater. And, incredibly, in at least three alternatives, pollution and congestion in the F.D.R.’s southbound traffic would increase from 19 percent to 26 percent.

So, while the rest of the CBD will see fewer vehicles and less pollution, our area will get an increase. Even more outrageous, this area by the F.D.R. is an Environmental Justice Area (E.J.A.). An E.J.A. is defined as a place where at least 51 percent of the population is minority and at least 23.5 percent of that group has an income lower than the rest of the population. In fact, every census tract but one in this area is an E.J.A. According to Community Board 3, roughly 42 percent of the population in the C.B. 3 district is below the poverty level, 46 percent of seniors are below the poverty level, and about 44 percent are minorities, the latter comprising 81 percent of the population below the poverty level. (Normally, I would say “People of Color,” but the tables specifically use the term “minority.”)

We need fewer cars — not an asthma center.

There is an almost solid wall of limited-income or low-income buildings next to the F.D.R. Drive here, mostly New York City Housing Authority. The one census tract (including East River Houses co-ops) not considered an E.J.A. was built as limited-income, and today many of its original residents are on limited incomes. It’s also a NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community), like much of the rest of the area. Finally, at least 18 percent of area residents have a disability.

Most appalling, this area already has among Manhattan’s highest levels of asthma and respiratory disease and heart disease. It also had an above-average rate of COVID and COVID deaths. Plus, a general medical study (not just for our area) released last month found there are greater premature births and low birth rates in highly polluted zones.

In other words, high pollution is not compatible with human health. So, you could hardly find a worse area on which to inflict more pollution, given residents’ already diminished health and welfare.

Making the situation worse, we are on track to lose 55 acres of mature parkland and well more than 1,000 trees due to the East Side Coastal Resiliency plan. We’ve already lost half of the park in the project’s phase one. It’s a cruel irony that residents next to this project are also being subjected to additional dust and pollution as that construction occurs.

I am totally outraged. Why is no one else screaming about this appalling situation? We need real mitigation — and I don’t mean an asthma center. We won’t accept additional pollution when the rest of the CBD is getting less. This will damage our health and our children’s health. The time to demand change is now, before the final plans are made.

We also should demand that more trees, specifically, more mature trees, be planted in the East River Park area. Right now, only saplings are proposed; it will take 20 to 30 years to get both pollution protection and shade from these saplings equal to that of the old East River Park. We also need more grass and natural surfaces for the park. Plants soak up water and capture carbon; they actually produce oxygen while lowering pollution and greenhouse gasses. Currently, park plans call for 62 percent hard and artificial surfaces, which do none of these things. (I could go on about artificial turf’s dangers and disadvantages, and why pro sports teams are demanding natural turf, or why many American cities are banning fake turf.)

Finally, here’s the best thing that could be done for this neighborhood: decking over portions of the F.D.R. Drive and installing air filters to remove the highway’s pollution — pollution that’s already too high. We could put playing fields on top, maybe even connect it to the reconstructed East River Park.

This deck could possibly even house surface mass transportation, like a Second Avenue subway extension. If you’re worried about your view next to the former park, remember, there will be a new floodwall there 8 feet to 10 feet tall anyway.

Also, as long as the F.D.R. Drive is subject to flooding, it is more and more likely that its infrastructure is eroding and will need replacement. Yet, the park coastal resiliency project does nothing to alleviate the impact of heavy rainfall.

After September’s downpour, three of four buildings in my co-op, which is right next to the F.D.R., flooded. It was worse than what happened during Hurricane Sandy. Adding larger catch basins next to and under the F.D.R. could help prevent flooding. Why not make real change? Just an idea.

Furthermore, our district is a “transit desert,” roughly described as any area where it takes more than 15 minutes to reach a bus or a subway. I can say from personal experience that it takes at least 15 minutes to get to a subway from my block next to the F.D.R. Drive. Although the bus stops are closer, a look at the Manhattan subway or bus maps, shows that we have far fewer buses, and the ones that we have tend to stick to the periphery of heavily populated areas. Most of us must walk to a bus to get to the subway. Not to mention, if you use the bus, you know how sporadic the service is. This does nothing to help the mobility disadvantaged. On top of which, we have absolutely no accessible subways. Were we promised them? Yes. Did we get it? No.

Freed is a retired State Supreme Court justice and former city councilmember representing Lower Manhattan’s District 1 from 1992 to 2001. She was co-counsel on a community lawsuit seeking to block East River Park’s destruction for the East Side Coastal Resiliency plan.


  1. Michele Michele January 19, 2024

    I am a former 12th & 1st Street resident. 2 blocks out of the bounds you are discussing but close enough. I’m going to add a point which might get some pushback, but when I was evicted because I lost my job and couldn’t pay rent, I moved into a van with my husband. We lived all over the area discussed here. The East Village and LES provide a relatively safe place to park. You would be surprised at how many people live in vehicles in this area. Most fly under the radar. Congestion pricing will unfairly affect this marginalized group of people, who will not be able to afford the fees and thus will be pushed into unsafe areas of NYC — removing them from the place they call home. I am no longer a part of this community but feel compelled to advocate on their behalf since I’m afraid not many people will.

  2. dee cohan dee cohan December 28, 2023

    Bravo, Kathryn! All good points. In this comment I will focus on one of her points.
    LES and Chinatown have the worst public transportation. It took an hour’s wait for a bus to come to get from 14th street to Chinatown via the M103. A zillion 101, 102 busses, which stop at East 6 Street, came. For every 103, which goes to that “Central Business District” of Chinatown, there were 4 to 5 M101/102’s, which terminate their route far short of Downtown Manhattan.
    The M9 and M15 have been rerouted to be close to the FDR Drive, which is useless (nor do they run frequently).
    The East Broadway F train stop is dark, scary and highly crime-ridden. The Grand Street subway stop is overcrowded, as are the Canal Street stops.
    The MTA is a money-suck, with overpaid executives who don’t ride public transport (and, during Covid, were exposed to be working in Canada, from “home”).
    Go to any city in the world and chances are there is a safe, clean, efficient subway with subway barriers (which the MTA has fought against as a safety measure for decades, despite a private firm’s offer to build them for free for ad revenue).
    With more money, the MTA will increase executive salaries and we will all continue to suffer and pay!

  3. Carol from East 5th Street Carol from East 5th Street December 4, 2023

    What no one else seems to wonder is why do we have “congestion”? Because EVERY THIRD LICENSE PLATE ON CARS IN MANHATTAN HAS A “T” ON IT, which indicates a service car. Uber spent millions of dollars on lobbyists to get a sweet deal for Uber to overload our city streets with their cars. This almost killed the yellow taxi business and overloaded our streets with cars that service people — who are haters of people who own personal cars in Manhattan — but have no feeling of responsibility for air pollution caused by service cars.

  4. Wes Green Wes Green December 4, 2023

    Thank you for this thought-provoking summary, Ms. Freed. All in all, quite a track record for our representatives Rivera, Epstein and Goldman, isn’t it? But that’s who we voted for, by a large majority, mostly by not voting. Of course our reps would never live here themselves. Too unhealthy. Apparently most of us residents are ok with living shorter lives, with more stress and disease.

  5. Michael Kramer Michael Kramer December 4, 2023

    Bravo, Kathryn. NYCDOT seems to be ignoring the opportunity for the MTA to extend the Second Avenue Subway via light-rail transit routes using the FDR right of way. One agency not talking to another. Where are our elected officials?

  6. emjayay emjayay December 4, 2023

    “And furthermore, HEY YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN.”

  7. JQ LLC JQ LLC December 4, 2023

    I find that the MTA’s offering the borough of the Bronx $130 million to combat asthma is nothing more than a bribe to get residents to accept and get adjusted to more pollution — plus is an admission of guilt by itself.

  8. Susan Goren Susan Goren December 4, 2023

    Bravo, Kathryn.

    Telling the truth is no longer in fashion since the Trump era began, but we can and should vote the politicians who voted for this out of office. The state should raise the taxes of the wealthy and have them pay their fair share. After all, who else will be able to pay an extra $15 to enter our area Downtown?

    Our hospitals have closed and our bus routes have been eliminated. Apparently our taxes are providing services only to the rich, as our parks and neighborhoods have become more dangerous. The fact is when there are no hospitals for the 400,000 taxpaying citizens south of 14th Street, where will the asthmatic and disabled people in the community be treated?

    My father was on Community Board 2 for years and I was a public member on several CB 2 committees. It is and always has been advisory body only. More recently it seems to be a rubber stamp for overdevelopment and loss of services.

    As NYU tries to close the last supermarket south of Washington Square in a zip code with 23,000 residents, I remember when there were 3 supermarkets within 10 blocks

    The real question now is: “Is anybody listening?”

    — Susan Goren

  9. Johnny A Ruff Johnny A Ruff December 4, 2023

    This is what I’ve been saying for a long time. You will get rid of the traffic in lower Manhattan and push it to the people in the Bronx. We already have the highest asthma rate in this state and all you’re telling people about is Manhattan. What about the rest of the city, especially the people of the Bronx, where twice as much traffic comes through in a day than in any parts of Manhattan? As for the MTA, that has been the biggest money waste in the last 30 years. Where is all the money going?

  10. ariana ariana December 4, 2023

    It would also help if they would not chop down the 500 or so remaining trees in East River Park and modify this ecocidal ESCR. The ESCR will be obsolete before it is completed but the mature trees that clean and cool our air are far from obsolete. We need them.

  11. Otto Barz Otto Barz December 4, 2023

    Wonderful article, Kathryn. How do we further pursue decking over the FDR (with concomitant air filtering)?

  12. Raymond Raymond December 4, 2023

    Very interesting column, thank you. You’ve brought up quite a lot that I didn’t know before, and I’m starting to see this plan in a different light.

  13. Choresh Wald Choresh Wald December 4, 2023

    Don’t distract yourself with Congestion Pricing or the destruction of East River Park: There’s no hope to have clean air and respite from noise pollution and stress until the FDR Drive is eliminated completely (as was done in Paris, France) or transformed into a street-level road (as was done on the wealthier side of Manhattan). Only 20% of area residents own cars but they are disproportionately represented in elected office.

    • JQ LLC JQ LLC December 4, 2023

      Did you read the part that the East Side is a mass transit desert? Wanna bet over 20% of residents there need their cars and 80% use car services?

  14. Christopher M Wilkinson Christopher M Wilkinson December 4, 2023

    How come there is no mention of the wall street loan that at least 25% of congestion pricing is going toward? Even tho it’s illegal per the contract that was signed with Pataki ..

  15. Lora Tenenbaum Lora Tenenbaum December 4, 2023

    Kathryn wrote an excellant, well-reasoned piece that pointed out the inequities of the current plan. It boggles my mind that a full environmental impact study was not done. One additional factor…people living in that area are still suffering the impacts of 9/11 on respiratory systems. And, as Jan Lee alluded, city employees are still being rewarded to drive to work Downtown. Not only megajail parking but also placards, a blind eye, and special parking areas all encourage cars. That must stop.

  16. Daniel Daniel December 3, 2023

    The automobile is responsible for killing hundreds of New Yorkers every year, contributing to the destruction of our planet, slowing down bus riders, and of course shortening our lifespans through pollutants. By reducing the number of cars driving in our city, congestion pricing gives us sorely needed relief by reducing all of these effects and the magnitude of their harms.

    It is truly unfortunate that this section of the FDR is expected to see higher traffic volumes as a result of congestion pricing. We are right to demand appropriate mitigations, such as improved air filtration and mature trees. Thankfully, less car volumes in the EV and LES will speed up their bus trips and make biking and walking safer. Fewer cars on neighborhood streets will also offset increased emissions coming from the FDR. The money raised from congestion pricing can be used on projects to increase transit access in the area.

    Additionally, it is hard to say this was a fast-tracked project when it languished in the hands of the previous presidential administration for several years.

    It is upsetting to see such a negative tone surrounding congestion pricing and the highlighting of opposition groups who want to shut the whole thing down and keep us mired in this untenable status quo. There is a brighter future and it involves fewer cars on our streets. Time is not on our side and there is no other way to accomplish these goals.

    • Jan Lee Jan Lee December 3, 2023

      And yet, no one minds the fact that a megajail is designed to ENCOURAGE 125 private commuter cars for gov’t employees to come into Chinatown daily, by providing FREE underground parking. The anti-car lobby is hypocritical, myopic, selective and, most of all, fearful of Government employees with cars.

    • Miriam Miriam December 4, 2023

      Do you live near or next to the FDR Drive? the author of this piece does and her so-called negative tone is possibly a call to action to stop the increased pollution that will affect hundreds of thousands of people, especially if you consider those of us who live next to the FDR Dr, north of 10th. If you aren’t affected by this, good for you. But if you are, perhaps it would be hard for you, like this author, to be positive about a plan guaranteed to raise the rates of asthma and heart problems.

    • JQ LLC JQ LLC December 4, 2023

      There’s a negative tone because this is a punitive tax for people’s commuting choices.

    • Jay Jay December 5, 2023

      This is a scam and nothing more than a moneygrab from the M.T.A. One of the most corrupt organizations that run our city. This will unjustly affect the middle class within the city. The rich would gladly pay the surcharge to drive around in the city. Trucks will just pass on the cost to the consumer. But the middle class will always have to pay. I said it before, if you want to reduce traffic within these areas: Free street parking should only be accessible to residents. (How many different license plates do I see every day utilizing our street parking that are not registered within the city, that are not paying our city taxes). That in itself will reduce traffic. As a lifelong Democrat who lives on the Lower East Side, I will be voting against any politician that votes for congestion pricing. And I’m not the only one.
      So thank you!

      • BCapoNYC BCapoNYC December 18, 2023

        Hello LES!
        We ARE NOT a central business district! We are a residential neighborhood. Don’t let them sell you this baloney and make us pay for it!
        AND yes we are a transit desert! We did not get a free connect bus shuttle from the 9/11 CDBG money. They’ve had that now for 20 years in CB1 ! Where is ours? We were the original frozen zone. And yes half of us are below Houston and our health was impacted. yes for an area high in asthma to begin with, particulates from the fires and now from the East River Park destruction? We were flooded during Sandy. And now the East River Park is being raped. Just keep shoveling the crap on us!
        CBD? NOT! Yes protest! raise your voice!
        AMEN RE Congestion pricing SCAM
        Taking money and wasting it on creating a whole other bureaucracy. Just take the infrastructure dollars from the federal government and use that to fix transit and streets.
        I never vote for anyone in favor of congestion pricing!
        SO HERE’S A LITTLE HOLIDAY SPIRIT LET’S ALL SING 🎶 “Deck the Drive…” and keep the trees no more fah Lala Lala Lala FOLLY
        maybe you’ll find some joy. solstice is the 21st, so the light is coming. Our days are getting longer. Find some joy together. In this neighborhood we celebrate and protest together
        QUE VIVA Loisaida!

  17. Allie Ryan Allie Ryan December 3, 2023

    Excellent op-ed, Kathryn! Yes, the NYC Dept of Transportation and NYS DOT should deck over the FDR as mitigation for the negative effects of congestion pricing on our neighborhoods.

    • BCapoNYC BCapoNYC December 18, 2023

      Not just to mitigate, Allie. And yes we know this should’ve been done from the get-go as part of the better plan and environmental alternative.
      Let’s stop this whole baloney of calling us a central business district!
      I know you like riding a bike, but congestion pricing is bullcrap for our neighborhood.

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