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Congestion Pricing Passed in New York, but Can It Be a National Solution to Traffic?

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The failure of the subway system provided political will for the policy, but it might be harder to rally support for driving fees in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Boston.

Last Sunday, New York lawmakers broke precedent when they agreed to enact a fee on driving. The first congestion pricing program of its kind in the country, the policy will require drivers entering lower Manhattan to pay a toll, likely around $11 for cars and $25 for trucks (based on the recommendations of a state-commissioned task force released last year).

The agreement comes after a more-than-decade-long effort by advocates and legislators to tackle the city’s crushing traffic problem, which has only increased with the rise of ride-share and delivery services: Since 2010, travel speeds are down by 21 percent in Manhattan south of 60th street, according to the New York City Department of Transportation Mobility Report. The policy had been pushed by a range of interests, from environmental advocates—who hold up congestion pricing as a necessary response to pollution—to economists, who had emphasized traffic’s financial burden. Congestion costs New York City an estimated $20 billion a year between lost productivity and excess gas and automobile expenses.

Congestion pricing is already under consideration in several other cities beleaguered by traffic. In Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan is spearheading efforts to establish congestion pricing by 2021; Portland is currently awaiting the Oregon Department of Transportation’s proposal for a pricing plan; studies are underway in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Since watching the news unfold in New York, policymakers in Philadelphia have expressed interest too.

There’s no doubt that New York‘s embrace of the policy will serve as a crucial stepping stone for other cities, saving them from the anxiety of the first-adopter role and, once the program takes effect, providing empirical information about the technology, fee structures, and exemptions that will make it work best. “I think New York‘s adoption of congestion pricing is very much a watershed moment for those of us that are advocating for cities around the country to adopt smarter approaches to how to manage traffic,” says Chris Dempsey, director of the Transportation for Massachusetts coalition, which has advocated for congestion pricing in Boston, which was recently named the most congested city in the United States. (In January, Mayor Martin Walsh’s press secretary announced that the mayor would not be instituting congestion pricing, despite a recommendation by a working group that he himself had set up to address climate change in Boston.)

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