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Other cities watch as New York brings congestion charging to Manhattan

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For the first time in this country, one of our biggest cities is getting ready to make drivers pay to enter its busiest areas. New York is bringing congestion charging to Manhattan. The money will go to fund improvements to public transit in the city. The Riders Alliance, which advocates for more reliable, affordable and accessible public transportation, is supporting this plan along with other groups. And other cities will be watching. Its policy and communications director is Danny Pearlstein. And he's with us now to tell us more about it. Good morning.

DANNY PEARLSTEIN: Good morning.

MARTIN: So tell us more about how this congestion pricing works and who would be affected.

PEARLSTEIN: Congestion pricing will set up a toll around the core of Manhattan's south of 60th Street. And cars and trucks that enter the zone will pay, you know, a significant toll, you know, somewhere in the range of 15 or so dollars. And that money will go to upgrade the subway. So the subway is, you know, using signals that go back to the 1930s in some cases. It's never been accessible to the million New Yorkers who can't climb stairs. And the money will pay for those essential upgrades, as well as some on the commuter rail systems north and east of the city.

MARTIN: I can see where, in the long run, this would be beneficial to people who, as you said, could not afford to or have - find the subway very difficult. But I understand that the proposed charge per vehicle could be as high as $23. Couldn't that disproportionately affect people, say, with disabilities in the near term, or people who have to travel with luggage or people who have small kids, for example, before these improvements take place?

PEARLSTEIN: Well, right now, 85% of people commute into the congestion zone already using public transit and so would face no additional charge. And the drivers already coming in, they're going to see a benefit immediately in the form of reduced congestion. And all of us will appreciate that, you know, with faster bus service, with shorter emergency response times and easier delivery of goods and services in one of the most congested places in the world. So we anticipate a win-win-win for transit, for traffic and for the quality of our air, which has become so important lately with the recent wildfire smoke.

MARTIN: So prices for the subway are also going up to $2.90 instead of 2.75. Why isn't that money enough to fund the improvements that we're talking about?

PEARLSTEIN: Well, the fare funds day-to-day costs of running the transit system, you know, your - the people who drive the trains, you know, the electricity to operate the trains. Think of it as our utilities, you know, monthly utilities. But congestion pricing is the new roof. It's the new boiler. It's the essential, capital upgrades to the system that have been deferred for so long because of underfunding.

MARTIN: Do you expect to see any exemptions to the charge? I'm thinking about maybe delivery trucks. I don't know. If you've already got sort of a bricks-and-mortar, you know, operation in that center zone, I don't know what other choices you have, maybe - I don't know - taxi drivers, rideshare drivers.

PEARLSTEIN: Well, you mentioned people with disabilities. And so under the law passed in 2019 that authorized the program, there will be an exemption for vehicles for people with disabilities. For delivery trucks, though, the benefit is different because right now the estimate is that New York families and firms are wasting $20 billion a year due to congestion. And a lot of that money will be recouped by businesses that have better access to the core because of reduced congestion.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, as briefly as you can - you know, nobody ever likes anything, at least all at once, at least not at first. When do you think that you will be able to say that this program is a success?

PEARLSTEIN: I think, you know, in a year from now, after the first several weeks of the program, everyone will begin to see that New York is a measurably more livable place as a result of congestion pricing. And it will be a success as it was in London, in Singapore and Stockholm.

MARTIN: That is Danny Pearlstein with the Riders Alliance. Thank you so much for joining us.

PEARLSTEIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDROMEDA MEGA EXPRESS ORCHESTRA'S "IN LIGHT OF TURMOIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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