Federal Judge Hears Challenges to New York’s Congestion Tolls for Drivers Into Manhattan

A Manhattan judge is hearing arguments in a series of lawsuits from unionized public school teachers, local Republican officials, and other New Yorkers seeking to put the brakes on the plan set to launch June 30.

AP/Bebeto Matthews
The approach to the Hugh Carey tunnel linking Brooklyn and Manhattan, February 7, 2024. AP/Bebeto Matthews

New York’s first-in-the-nation plan to levy a hefty toll on drivers entering much of traffic-choked Manhattan was the focus of a legal battle playing out in federal court Friday.

A Manhattan judge is hearing arguments in a series of lawsuits from unionized public school teachers, local Republican officials, and other New Yorkers seeking to put the brakes on the plan set to launch June 30.

Most drivers in private cars, locals and tourists alike, heading into Manhattan south of Central Park should expect to pay about $15 during the daytime, with higher tolls for larger vehicles and lower rates for motorcycles and late-night entries into the city, according to the proposal finalized in March. Those who aren’t enrolled in a regional toll collection program will pay $22.50.

Lawyers for lower Manhattan residents argued Friday that the tolling scheme was given the green light by federal transportation officials without proper scrutiny. They said that before the toll is rolled out, more comprehensive environmental studies need to be done and more detail provided about how the state will address them.

“This is supposed to be an all-encompassing process, and it has been anything but,” said Alan Klinger, who represents residents who claim their neighborhood will see increased traffic and air pollution from drivers seeking alternative routes to avoid the toll.

Yet lawyers for the Federal Highway Administration countered that New York transit officials had thoroughly analyzed the plan’s consequences and presented sufficient details for how they would address any harmful effects.

“None of these challenges have any merit,” a highway administration lawyer, Zack Bannon, said.

The toll is expected to lead to an overall decline in traffic across greater New York City, even as some areas will see a “small degree” of increased congestion, a lawyer for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency overseeing the congestion fee plan, Elizabeth Knauer, said.

The MTA, she said, has committed to investing $155 million over five years to address effects, including investments in roadside plants, parks, air-filtration systems for schools near highways, and more electric vehicle charging stations.

Other lawsuits being argued Friday contend that low-income and minority communities already dealing with poor air quality will be particularly hard hit by the health effects of increased traffic through their streets.

They also argue drivers from other city boroughs and suburbs that lack adequate mass transit will take a disproportionate financial hit. Additionally, they claim, small businesses in the congestion zone will face higher operating costs and fewer customers.

The MTA maintains it conducted extensive environmental reviews that found no significant effects to communities that could not be addressed by their proposed mitigation efforts.

The agency says the fee will also help reduce traffic and improve regional air quality by discouraging driving into Manhattan. And it will provide a desperately needed annual cash infusion of around $1 billion for the city’s subway and bus systems, which carry some 4 million riders daily.

Judge Lewis Liman isn’t expected to issue a decision immediately after Friday’s daylong hearing.

Many of the claims in Friday’s lawsuits echo arguments made last month during a two-day hearing at a New Jersey federal court, where Governor Murphy of New Jersey and Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee have each filed suits.

Judge Leo Gordon, who is weighing those legal challenges, has said he plans to issue a written decision before the toll takes effect.

The New York Sun

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