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Congestion pricing could add to morning commute times into Manhattan, offsetting benefits for Long Island drivers

by Staff

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority congestion pricing plan — sold for its potential to reduce traffic and improve transit — is projected to lengthen how long it takes to drive from Long Island to Manhattan during the morning rush hour and result in fewer empty seats on Long Island Rail Road trains, according to project documents.

An additional 250 cars would enter the Queens-Midtown Tunnel between 8 and 9 a.m., on weekdays, adding at least a couple minutes to drivers’ Manhattan-bound commutes, under a tolling scenario similar to one chosen by the MTA.

But the head of the MTA said the extra time drivers may spend in the tunnels will be more than made up for by clearer streets once they arrive in Manhattan and that there’s plenty of capacity on the LIRR for potential new riders. 

After years of debate, the MTA is looking to implement its congestion pricing plan as soon as late May. The plan, which the MTA expects will generate $1 billion annually in toll revenue, would charge most vehicles $15 for driving below 60th Street in Manhattan.

WHAT TO KNOW:

  • The MTA’s congestion pricing plan, which aims to reduce traffic in New York City, is predicted to increase traffic at the Manhattan-bound Queens-Midtown Tunnel during the morning rush hour, in part because some drivers will no longer go out of their way to use the free Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, according to the project’s environmental review. 

  • MTA officials say the extra time spent at the tunnel will be made up for by reduced traffic in Manhattan, resulting in a net time savings for drivers. The environmental study predicts a 0.1% reduction in the average number of miles traveled by Long Island drivers.

  • Congestion pricing is also projected to lead to an LIRR ridership increase of as much as 2%, which would mean about 4,600 additional passengers on trains each day. MTA officials say the railroad has enough capacity to handle the extra demand.

The 4,000-page “environmental assessment,” approved by federal regulators in June as one of the final hurdles to implement the first-in-the-nation tolling plan, found that it is expected to reduce traffic by as much as 20% in Manhattan. But the document also shows that the overall benefits are more modest for Long Island commuters, who make up about 7% of the 1.26 million people per day who commute into the central business district, below 60th Street.

Offsetting some of the overall time savings is an expected increase in traffic at a key Manhattan gateway for Nassau and Suffolk motorists — the Queens-Midtown Tunnel on the west end of the Long Island Expressway.

Bypassing free crossing

Because the MTA will offer a $5 credit to anyone who enters Manhattan through currently tolled MTA crossings, planners expect that some motorists who currently go out of their way to get into Manhattan for free — including through the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge — will instead opt for the more convenient tunnel. The toll for the tunnel is $6.94 each way for E-ZPass users, and $11.19 for others.

Congestion pricing “has the potential for a modest shift in traffic from currently toll-free facilities to tolled facilities where the crossing credits would be applied,” according to the environmental review.

Under a tolling scenario studied by planners, and similar to the one chosen by the MTA, there would be an additional 253 cars entering the tunnel between 8 and 9 a.m. each weekday, on top of the 2,672 cars that already drive into the portals during that time.

The study calculates that an additional 125 cars per hour entering the tunnels would add about 2.2 minutes to drivers’ Manhattan-bound commutes.

The document notes that although the $5 credits offered at the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and other tolled crossings “have the potential to alter travel behavior and travel patterns in a manner that could result in increased traffic at some locations . . . overall traffic would be reduced.”

The entrance to the Queens-Midtown Tunnel at 36th Street in Manhattan. Credit: Ed Quinn

Once drivers enter the tolling zone below 60th Street, the study forecasts that they will save about four minutes on their way in, and another four minutes on their way out. The study predicts that during the evening rush hour between 5 and 6 p.m. on weekdays, there would be 316 fewer cars exiting Manhattan through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, which emerges around 36th Street.

“If there’s 17 to 20% less traffic in Manhattan, for those people who do have to drive, they’re going to have less traffic to deal with once they get to Manhattan,” MTA chairman Janno Lieber told reporters following an MTA Board meeting on Wednesday. “Less traffic in general will make for faster rides in the places where they get into the most traffic.”

20,000 car commuters to Manhattan

Overall, the average number of miles driven by Nassau and Suffolk motorists would fall by 0.1%, according to the study. That’s less than any of the other areas studied, including New York City (0.6%), upstate New York (0.4%), New Jersey (0.2%) or Connecticut (0.2%).

Lieber said a key takeaway from the report’s assessment on the impact on Nassau and Suffolk residents should be that “there are very few Long Island drivers.” The environmental study shows that around 20,000 of the approximately 96,800 Nassau and Suffolk residents commuting into Manhattan do so by car.

“We’re always talking about them, instead of the 80-plus percent that take mass transit, who are going to benefit from this tremendously,” Lieber said.

MTA chair and CEO Janno Lieber said transit riders would benefit “tremendously.” Credit: Corey Sipkin

Assemb. Ed Ra (R-Rockville Centre) said the environmental review’s findings reinforce what he’s long believed — that the plan has less to do with reducing congestion than it does raising funds for the MTA.

“That’s a huge part of why I’ve been a skeptic. I do think it was designed from the beginning to try to be an additional way to get the suburban taxpayer to pay for a big chunk of this,” he said. “We all thought that you were going to see increases in traffic in other places, and people were going to seek different routes to get into the city.”

The MTA has committed to setting aside 10% of toll revenue generated by the congestion pricing tolls for Long Island Rail Road infrastructure, like purchasing new train cars, track and signal maintenance and improvements, and accessibility upgrades at stations.

“Really, at the end of the day, Long Islanders are absolutely benefitting from the investment in the MTA’s capital program by paying into the system with congestion pricing,” said Tiffany-Ann Taylor, vice president of transportation for the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit civic group that supports congestion pricing.

But the most immediate change some LIRR commuters may notice from congestion pricing is more passengers on their trains.

LIRR ridership projected to climb

The environmental review predicts that LIRR ridership will climb by between 0.6% and 2% “because some people would shift to transit rather than driving.” The increase “would not result in adverse effects” on railroad capacity, the study concluded.

Port Washington LIRR rider David Schamis, a congestion pricing supporter, said he’s not concerned about the impact on his commute because the LIRR “definitely has excess capacity right now.”

“With congestion pricing, one of two things will happen. Either less people will use the roads, or the same number of people will, and the government will collect a ton of money, which it can use to build better roads and/or better public transit options. Either way it’s a good thing.”

With a daily ridership of about 230,000, an extra 0.6% to 2% would add between 1,380 and 4,600 passengers onto LIRR trains each day. Many of those passengers would look to park their cars at Long Island station lots — about half of which are already at 85% or more of capacity, according to the environmental review.

Lieber noted that, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the LIRR was regularly carrying more than 300,000 riders a day, and, last year, boosted service by around 40% with the opening of Grand Central Madison. The LIRR is at 47% capacity during the morning rush, and 54% during the evening rush, Lieber said. Overall, LIRR ridership has returned so far to about 72% of what it was pre-pandemic.

“So we have a lot of room. And there are very few people who are going to be moving from driving to the railroad, because there are very few people who are driving to begin with,” Lieber said.

Despite Lieber’s assertion that relatively few Nassau and Suffolk residents will be affected by congestion pricing, the plan has faced significant opposition from Long Island. A Newsday/Siena College poll released in November found that 72% of Long Island voters reject the plan, which also has been derided by Republican Long Island lawmakers, including its congressional delegation and the two county executives.

New Yorkers will have an opportunity to sound off on the plan at a series of virtual public hearings beginning on Feb. 29.

By the numbers

  • 1.26 million: Number of people commuting into Manhattan’s Central Business District each day.
  • 96,800: Number of people commuting from Long Island to Manhattan each day, about 20,000 of which do so by car.
  • $15: The proposed new toll for most vehicles driving below 60th Street in Manhattan during peak hours.
  • 253: The number of additional cars that are predicted to use the westbound Queens-Midtown Tunnel between 8 and 9 a.m. under the proposed congestion pricing plan.
  • 17%: The projected reduction in traffic in Manhattan’s Central Business District. 
  • 0.1%: The projected reduction in miles driven by Long Island motorists under congestion pricing.
  • 0.6% to 2%: The projected increase in LIRR ridership caused by congestion pricing, equating to between 1,380 and 4,600 additional passengers each day.

Source: MTA Central Business District Tolling Program Final Environmental Assessment

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