Congestion pricing? Already in effect, says M.T.A. chief

Lhota in Grand Central Terminal. (Dana Rubinstein)
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"I always get a chuckle when people start talking about congestion pricing as if it's a new idea," said M.T.A. chairman Joe Lhota today, on WNYC. "It's implemented in New York State. It's over 40 years old." 

There has been some talk of congestion pricing lately, what with the M.T.A.'s fragile finances and its continued reliance on ever-escalating tolls and fares.

In March, the M.T.A. will once again make it more expensive to ride the subway, as it did in 2010 and as it will do again in 2015. This, even though New York mass transit users shoulder more of the system's funding burden than anywhere else in the United States.

There are a couple of reasons for that: one is escalating pension and health-care costs, and another is the state's persistent underfunding of the mass transit system on which New York City's economy, and by extension, New York State's, relies.

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Mayor Michael Bloomberg, back in his second term, tried to institute a congestion pricing scheme that would charge drivers to enter the city's central business district, with the resulting revenue going to fund the M.T.A. He failed to get Albany on board.

None of the candidates who would succeed him have endorsed anything like it, though a new plan by transportation engineer Sam Schwartz has been making the rounds.

As Lhota pointed out today, the idea's not exactly revolutionary.

"You go back and look at...the public discussions in the 1960s, about when the M.T.A. was created," said Lhota, in response to a question from a listener in Suffolk County about the apportionment of toll revenue. "It was, believe it or not, the very first discussions in the State of New York about congestion pricing. And it was determined by the leadership at that time that drivers should be subsidizing the mass transit systems on the commuter rail side as well as on the subway side...And it was the very, very beginning of congestion pricing."

That's why, basically since then, tolls on M.T.A.-controlled bridges and tunnels go, in part, to fund mass transit.

More precisely, Lhota said that after paying debt service, the authority's bridge and tunnel division produces a surplus of about $500 million. As required by legislation, that surplus is then split in half, with 50 percent going to subways and buses, and 50 percent going to the Long Island and Metro-North railroads.

The federal government operates under the belief that drivers should subsidize mass transit, too.

"Most tolls around the country go far beyond paying for the roads," said Lhota. "They go to pay for transit and mass transit and alternative ways of driving. It's a controversial issue, I grant you that."