As cities look to congestion pricing to help unclog gridlocked streets, questions of who should be charged and how much they should pay are swirling.
New York City will be the first U.S. city to charge drivers a congestion toll — applicable in Manhattan's business district below 60th Street — in late 2020 or early 2021 after years of debate. Meanwhile, the likes of Seattle and Los Angeles are in varying stages of studying their own plans. And in each city, there are a number of thoughts on how to administer the program and divvy up the funds raised.
Some have suggested that certain groups be exempt from a toll altogether, while others have advocated for a system of rebates and credits for low-income drivers. Questions of where the revenue from congestion pricing should be spent also come into discussions of equity, especially when considering investments in public transit, infrastructure or air quality improvements.
"Thinking about how single-occupancy vehicles are given priority at the expense of more sustainable options like transit, walking or biking, congestion pricing as a policy really offers an opportunity to subvert that status quo and take back a space that has been allocated to cars to the detriment of time, equity and sustainability," Sindhu Bharadwaj, policy associate at the National Association of City Transportation Officials, told Smart Cities Dive.
Giving drivers their money back
The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) released a report on congestion pricing earlier this year, noting there must be a "clear focus on social and racial equity" in the implementation of any program. That focus on social equity includes giving thought to how a toll will impact low-income residents and commuters on a daily basis.
To get on top of that issue, Uber commissioned a white paper from economics and planning firm ECONorthwest. It suggests Seattle use $50 million of the estimated $130 million gross revenue generated each year from a congestion toll for a "mobility fairness program," which could provide rebates and toll credits to low-income households.
"Given that this still does impact people that do make potentially less than the median wage, that rebate could be a way to help mitigate that issue," Chris Pangilinan, Uber's head of public transportation policy, told Smart Cities Dive.
Other rebate advocates say that as the road system is used by virtually everyone and funded by taxes, cities should do all they can to give as much tolling relief as possible to all drivers after taking what they need for improvements and other projects.
"Congestion pricing as a policy really offers an opportunity to subvert that status quo and take back a space that has been allocated to cars to the detriment of time, equity and sustainability."
Policy associate, National Association of City Transportation Officials
"Really, that money should not accrue to them," Kara Kockelman, a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and a peer reviewer of the white paper, told Smart Cities Dive. "They should give it right back to the travelers in the form of credits…We all own the road network together. It's a public space, sort of like Central Park."
In its white paper, ECONorthwest suggested that Seattle toll drivers as much as $3.80 one way during peak periods, which when added to the price of parking, gas, car maintenance and other expenses could make costs prohibitive. Carter Rubin, a transportation technical strategist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said cities must take a holistic approach in considering how to alleviate those costs.
"It makes sense to situate a discussion of congestion pricing in that total cost of transportation," Rubin told Smart Cities Dive. "I've heard some thoughtful researchers on this describe this as: free roads are not really free."
Exemptions: 'Death by a thousand carve-outs'?
In the quest to make congestion pricing equitable, there have been some suggestions to exempt certain groups from paying at all, rather than offer rebates or discounts.
A short time after New York State approved its FY 2020 budget with details on how Manhattan's congestion toll could raise an estimated $15 billion over five years, lawmakers and other groups were lining up demanding exemptions from paying the toll. While there is broad agreement that emergency vehicles should be exempt, others including truck drivers and taxi drivers said their members should not be charged for driving into the congestion zone.
In cities where congestion pricing already exists, there are a limited number of exemptions based on geography and other factors. London exempts motorbikes and mopeds from its congestion charge, in addition to emergency service vehicles and vehicles used by disabled people. Stockholm, Sweden has a similar system of exemptions, which for a time included cars powered by alternative fuels in a bid to stimulate that market. The exemption was abolished altogether in 2012.
But the stateside exemption push has taken on another dimension after elected officials from New Jersey have said anyone driving from that state into New York should receive an exemption, too. Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-NJ, and Chris Smith, R-NJ, introduced the Anti-Congestion Tax Act in May, which would prevent Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) projects from receiving federal grants and offer New Jersey drivers a federal tax credit equal to what they paid entering Manhattan. The push has also received support from Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-NJ.
"With the tolls we look at every time we come in the city, we don't need to pay any more at those toll spots," Pascrell said during a press conference in April. "Congestion pricing is a raw deal for New Jersey commuters as it stands today."
Some experts say ratcheting up the exemptions undermines the whole point of congestion pricing, which is designed to disincentivize people from driving and can help raise money to pay for infrastructure improvements.
"Congestion pricing can only be as effective as we know it can be when you have a critical threshold of people actually paying into it," Bharadwaj said. "There are very valid reasons and categories of people to provide carve-outs to, but what we like to say here is that, it's possible to have death by a thousand carve-outs."
And from a budgetary standpoint, adding exemptions to the congestion pricing can result in lower-than-anticipated revenues generated from the tolls, or can mean that those not exempted are paying more to make up any shortfall. That might create obstacles for New York, which expects to use the money it raises from congestion pricing to fund much-needed subway improvements.
"If you start creating too many exemptions, it's sort of a downward spiral to the point where you're not getting the shift away from cars that is required for the system to really work," Rubin said.
Where the money goes
It is not just trough the tolling of drivers that equity can be promoted, but also in how that revenue is spent. Polling by civil engineering consulting firm HNTB Corporation found that 70% of Americans are willing to pay higher taxes and tolls to support infrastructure maintenance or new construction, however other polling indicates that there might be a disconnect between infrastructure investments and congestion pricing.
An April poll by Quinnipiac University found New York City voters oppose congestion pricing by 13 percentage points, although 62% of voters surveyed said subway service is either "not so good" or "poor." That poll, along with a separate one of Washington, DC residents that found opposition to a similar plan, means city leaders likely need to do more to show people the benefits of congestion pricing.
London serves as an example for what can be done with the revenue from congestion pricing. Transport for London (TfL) has taken chunks of the revenue and invested it in the city's bus service, making that a more efficient option.
"By increasing frequency and the reliability of their bus system, creating more lines, just by directing that money towards creating new options that didn't already exist and then by improving the already existing options, that makes those options that people may not have considered or maybe couldn't rely on earlier much more attractive," Bharadwaj said.
Similarly, Los Angeles has floated making transit completely free from congestion pricing revenues, which could help increase ridership and make it a better option to get around. Both NACTO and NRDC cite a 2017 study from anti-poverty group Community Service Society that found only around 2% of lower-income commuters from New York's outer boroughs drive, so would be subject to a fee.
Uber's white paper suggested a similar role for revenue raised from congestion pricing in Seattle, although its modeling only considered the city's transit system as it exists now and did not take into account any future growth that might occur. Pangilinan said that could be a very effective way to provide other transportation choices, especially in a city clearly committed to public transportation.
"Transit would play a large role in helping facilitate movement through downtown. It already does today, and would facilitate an even larger role in the future," he said. "The nice thing about the congestion pricing potential is the revenue raised from it could potentially be ploughed back into transit and reinvested in the system, which Seattle has really demonstrated over the last several years that they've done a good job at that, but this could be an additional boost for that."
Revenue can be spent in other ways to encourage equity and to lessen negative impacts, including air quality improvements. If city leaders are to ensure that they spend the revenues from congestion pricing in the best way, Rubin said it must come after a robust conversation with community members about their priorities for the money. In particular, he said that members of communities that are most burdened should be at the forefront.
"Starting with this foundation of robust community engagement and focusing on the community goals, especially the most underserved communities, really helps ensure you're at a starting point of aligning those investments with those goals," Rubin said. "If you start in a purely political process you might lose sight of serving equity with the revenue stream."