BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Charging that the traffic, health and socioeconomic impacts of congestion pricing have not been adequately studied — as required under law — nearly three dozen New Yorkers recently filed a class-action federal lawsuit against the scheme.
The congestion charge would affect vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th Street (the so-called Central Business District) — except on the F.D.R. Drive and West Side Highway, which would be free. The stated goal of legislation passed four years ago in Albany is for the plan — slated to go into effect this year — to raise $1 billion per year for the chronically cash-strapped Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Advocates gung-ho for the tolling scheme say it would drastically slash the amount of cars, trucks and pollution in Downtown Manhattan. Tribeca transit guru Charles Komanoff — whose traffic projections were used to help craft the congestion plan — has gushed that the scheme would lead to a veritable “boom” in biking and walking. On its face, it seems like a no-brainer — fewer cars and trucks, cleaner air, less honking.
However, many of the lawsuit plaintiffs live on the Lower East Side. Others own small businesses in Chinatown. Both neighborhoods are already recognized as environmental justice communities — yet would be further negatively impacted by a congestion tax, the lawsuit argues: The Lower East Side, specifically along the F.D.R. Drive from the Brooklyn Bridge to E. 10th Street, would see not less but more traffic and pollution since that route would not be tolled, while Chinatown small businesses would be decimated both by having to pay more for deliveries and seeing a dropoff in customers.
‘E.I.S. is needed’
In short, the plaintiffs say, a full environmental impact statement (E.I.S.) must be conducted for congestion pricing. Indeed, an E.I.S. would require “a hard look” at “cumulative impacts” of the plan, the suit notes.
Yet, instead, to date, only a less-stringent environmental assessment statement (E.A.S.) has been done. The Federal Highway Administration, which specifically declined to do an E.I.S., is one of the defendants named in the suit, along with the M.T.A. Instead, the FHWA issued what’s known as a FONSI, or Finding of No Significant Impact. The lawsuit also calls for an injunction against the implementation of congestion pricing.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency does support doing an E.I.S. — though, apparently, the highway agency trumps it.
According to the lawsuit, “Congestion pricing is unprecedented in the United States. No major city or metropolitan area has instituted any comparable program. …Congestion pricing only exists in London, Stockholm and Singapore — municipalities with much different demographics, geographic concerns and socioeconomic conditions.”
Also among the plaintiffs are nine city councilmembers from the Council’s Commonsense Caucus, including the likes of Robert Holden, Joseph Borelli, Inna Vernikov and Susan Zhuang. Hailing from the outer boroughs, they argue their districts are transit deserts, with many older constituents and retirees who often need to drive into Manhattan for medical appointments.
It was Albany where the congestion pricing law was passed. However, only one state lawmaker has joined the suit, Assemblymember David Weprin of Queens.
Another plaintiff is New Yorkers Against Congestion Pricing Tax, which, according to its leader, Susan Lee, represents “all New Yorkers from all walks of life.” Lee ran against Christopher Marte in last year’s Democratic City Council primary for Lower Manhattan’s District 1.
On Jan. 18, the plaintiffs, joined by their attorney, Jack Lester, held a press conference outside City Hall.
‘Will increase traffic’
“It will increase traffic,” Lee said of the congestion plan, “because it will push traffic to the F.D.R. and Cross-Bronx Expressway.
“Yes, this helps the M.T.A., but it hurts New York City’s tax base,” she said, warning, “Jobs will be lost and people will move out.”
Her group charges that “the real source of traffic congestion” is for-hire vehicles, like Uber and Lyft. F.H.V.s would pass along only a small fee to their fares and so likely would not be reduced by congestion pricing.
According to Lee, “An E.I.S. would examine the three E’s: environmental impacts, economic hardship and equity.”
‘Jobs will be lost and people will move out.’
— Susan Lee
In addition, she scoffed, raising more funds for the M.T.A. is pointless unless there is “direct federal intervention” to ensure the agency’s “fiscal accountability.”
Tommy Loeb, a Grand Street activist, is also a party to the lawsuit. “Any judge that looks at this,” he said, would be convinced of the lawsuit’s merit.
“I live on the F.D.R. Drive,” he said. “On one side, you have a construction site [where the East River Park has been clear-cut for the East Side Coastal Resiliency project]. On the other, you have NYCHA [public] housing. We’re an environmental justice community and we’re a NORC, a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community. And we have limited mass transit. It’s at least three-quarters of a mile to the nearest subway. There’s no accommodation for people that live in the zone, and it seems totally unfair.”
Loeb noted that any resident in the “charging zone” under London’s congestion pricing can apply for a 90 percent discount on the toll. In New York City’s proposed version, residents in the zone — though only with an annual salary of less than $60,000 — can get a tax reimbursement for any congestion tax paid.
$15 fee for cars
Passenger vehicles would have to pay the proposed $15 fee only once per day. Manhattan residents who drive out of the zone on a day other than when they entered it, would be charged, too — for “remaining in the zone.” Small trucks and intercity buses are proposed to pay $24 (with some buses up to $36) and motorcycles $7.50.
In addition, the hours of Manhattan’s congestion pricing plan currently start earlier, 5 a.m., and end later, 9 p.m., than those in other international cities with similar traffic fees, plaintiffs noted. Weekend hours would be 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Asked if the plaintiffs personally would favor congestion pricing were it only better designed, Loeb said, “It varies — first thing, we want an E.I.S.”
Chinatown activist Karlin Chan was lending support at the press conference, though is not part of the suit.
“This is really going to hurt Chinatown,” he warned, speaking afterward. “Chinatown is known for cheap eats. It operates on razor-thin profit margins.
“With congestion pricing,” he continued, “outer-borough diners will choose to eat elsewhere and not take a trip into Chinatown. Retail shops and supermarkets will have to increase prices due to increased shipping costs from the proposed $36 truck toll. Already, smaller suppliers from Brooklyn and elsewhere have indicated it’s not cost effective for them to transport smaller amounts of product into Chinatown and suggested local merchants go to Brooklyn to pick things up for themselves.
“Chinatown depends on tourism,” Chan said, “but also the numbers of outer-borough and New Jersey Chinese seniors who are driven here by children to keep doctor appointments due to Chinatown’s high concentration of professionals. This will create a healthcare crisis for seniors.”
Lee Berman, a Democratic district leader who lives on Grand Street, noted he has been “fighting against congestion pricing since 2019, when it was forced through in the [New York State] budget.”
The lawsuit states Berman’s wife, who has health issues, cannot take mass transit to shop or to work and that his daughter, who is a high school athlete, often practices in the Bronx into the evening, when many New Yorkers avoid taking the subway.
Like others, Berman was disappointed that no local politicians are supporting area residents and small business owners in their challenge of the congestion tax.
“It not only was not fought,” he said of the tolling plan, “it was supported by our elected officials. The disregard for the working class is disgusting.”
He said he pleaded, in vain, with former Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou to oppose the traffic fee.
‘Better quality of life’
Councilmember Carlina Rivera’s newsletter recently had a statement on the traffic plan, saying, “As this process moves forward, Councilmember Rivera is following it closely to best advocate for her constituents. Congestion pricing has the potential to bring quality of life and health improvements, such as less air pollution, less noise pollution and less traffic for those who do drive. In the process, it’s important that the plan is implemented so as not to create an undo burden on residents of the tolling zone, especially seniors, those who live close to the F.D.R. Drive and people with disabilities. Councilmember Rivera has joined her [Downtown Manhattan] colleagues Councilmembers Keith Powers, Erik Bottcher and Chris Marte in advocating for the needs of residents of the congestion zone and will continue to share information with constituents as it is released.”
Marte, for his part, has said he supports “a local exception for residents.”
Congestion pricing critics, though, called Rivera’s newsletter statement short on specifics.
Chris Ryan, the husband of City Council candidate Allie Ryan, is also a plaintiff. An East Village resident for more than 30 years, he needs his car as a self-employed electrical technician and contractor working in the movie industry.
“Mr. Ryan’s work schedule and load of equipment, tools and supplies vary day-to-day,” the lawsuit states, “but he is always dependent upon vehicular transportation due to the weight and value of his electrical equipment, and due to the impracticability of transporting that equipment via mass transit, often to more than one job site during the same work day.”
Similarly, Meredith LeVande, a Lower East Sider who teaches music to students 20 times a week at five different preschools in the Bronx, says she needs her car to transport her music equipment to her classes.
Trevor Holland is a leader in the Two Bridges community, which, the lawsuit says, “already faces heightened health risks with elevated levels of asthma and other respiratory diseases. This area also suffers from one of the highest COVID-19 rates and fatalities in all of New York City.” Holland is also “a minority,” the suit notes. Environmental justice communities are characterized by a high percentage of low-income and minority residents.
“The Lower East Side…bears disproportionate asthma disparities for both adults and children,” according to the lawsuit.
Allie Ryan, who is not a plaintiff, said she opposes congestion pricing, calling it, “simply a regressive tax designed as a revenue stream for the dangerously mismanaged M.T.A.”
“Over the past few years, many people have shared their stories of how congestion pricing will impact them and their loved ones, and they have asked me to oppose congestion pricing,” she said. “I was proud to ask Council District 2 residents and merchants to sign on as plaintiffs to this lawsuit. We are empowering residents and merchants to take real, meaningful action to oppose this regressive tax that Assemblymember Harvey Epstein and state Senator Brian Kavanagh voted for.”
Allie Ryan is right that it would be a regressive tax, at least as currently structured, since middle class car owners would pay the same fee as wealthy ones.
Kathryn Freed, a Grand Street resident, former city councilmember and retired judge, said the Lower East Side will suffer even more, in terms of transportation, if the plan passes in its current form.
“The M.T.A. says congestion pricing works in Manhattan because all of Manhattan has easy access to subways and mass transit. Well, we don’t,” she fumed. “A survey of people who need to take buses to the subway showed they have double the trip times as just taking a subway — presupposing you are mobile enough to use the subway stairs. The Lower East Side is the forgotten neighborhood of Manhattan.”
Business would die
Among other plaintiffs is Danny Buzzetta, the owner of Peter Jarema Funeral Home, at 129 E. Seventh Street. The suit notes: “Mr. Buzzetta’s business relies upon vehicular transportation to cemeteries, crematories, hospitals and medical examiner locations outside the CBD zone. … For obvious reasons, Mr. Buzzetta cannot use public transportation to transport deceased New York City residents. The financial burdens created by congestion pricing will force Mr. Buzzetta to lose his business.”
Rabbi Y.S. Ginzberg, another plaintiff, is the school principal at Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America. Many of the students attending the Lower East Side yeshiva, the suit notes, “will face financial hardships due to the increased cost of commuting from neighborhoods all over New York City and New Jersey. Students may be forced to leave school and transfer to other educational institutions due to this financial hardship. Additionally, Rabbi Ginzberg lives in an area of the Lower East Side inaccessible to mass transit. Therefore, Rabbi Ginzberg must rely on vehicular transportation to purchase necessities, such as kosher dairy products, which are only available in the community closest to the Lower East Side — Williamsburg, Brooklyn.”
The previous comment period on the tolling plan saw nearly 70,000 responses. Yet, the lawsuit charges, last May, the FHWA published its final E.A. — which “remained largely unchanged from the initial draft.”
Currently, the M.T.A. is accepting public comments until midnight March 11 on its proposed toll-rate structure both online at contact.mta.info/s/forms/CBDTP and by phone at 646-252-7440.
In addition, a series of four public hearings will start Thurs., Feb. 29, and end March 4. Those who want to speak are required to register online at new.mta.info/agency/bridges-and-tunnels/cbd-tolling-hearing or by calling the public hotline at 646-252-6777. The hearings will be held at M.T.A. Headquarters, at 2 Broadway, 20th floor.
Registration will open one week before the start time of each hearing and close 30 minutes after each begins. Speakers will get two minutes.
In addition, Assemblymember Grace Lee, state Senator Brian Kavanagh and other local politicians will host a Lower East Side and Chinatown Congestion Pricing Information Session, featuring a Q&A with the M.T.A., on Thurs., Feb. 8, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at P.S. 20, the Anna Silver School, at 166 Essex Street. Registration by Feb. 4 at tinyurl.com/3fhnvuyt is required.