Sustainability advocates have long championed the idea of “congestion pricing” — charging motorists for driving into high-traffic areas during the busiest times — but no U.S. city has ever actually instituted it. Until now. New York is close to establishing the nation’s first congestion pricing plan, levying a fee for drivers who enter the central business district during most hours of the day.
But one politician isn’t celebrating yet. New York State Assemblyman Kenny Burgos represents the southeast Bronx — a district with “a chip on its shoulder, and for good reason.” Historically, Burgos says, his constituents have been left out of important conversations that determine how the city works. Now, he wants to ensure that the current congestion pricing plan takes his community’s interests into account.
We spoke with Burgos about his concerns and his ideas for designing a truly equitable congestion pricing policy.
Rev: Tell me about your district.
Burgos: I represent about 130,000 people. It’s been a marginalized and disadvantaged community. You look back at Robert Moses — the famous New York City planner. We’re still reeling from the effects of what he did to our communities. He left us with what’s known as the Toxic Triangle. The Bruckner Expressway, the Cross Bronx Expressway, and the Bronx River Parkway create a triangle, and the people that live around it have some of the highest asthma rates in the country. You have constant pollution from these extremely trafficked highways.
At the same time, my district is a huge transit desert. There’s one bus in and one bus out on the eastern end at Clason Point. If you want to get to midtown Manhattan, it’s a 40-minute walk just to get to the train. So a lot of people in my community choose to drive. It’s not a luxury; it’s a necessity because the city and state have not given us great public transportation options. It’s even worse at night, during off-peak hours. Lots of members of my community work evenings. Nurses, first responders, service workers. The lack of viable public transportation puts an even bigger burden on them.
New York is about to become the first city in the U.S. to institute congestion pricing — charging people to drive into the central business district. How might that impact your community?
The biggest concern for me is that people are going to avoid driving into the central business district by driving and parking in the outer boroughs. And you’ll also see an impact on businesses. A lot of companies with operations in the central business district also have dispatch sites in the Bronx. So, based on how this pricing model came out, some have already indicated they will dispatch more polluting cars and trucks out of their Bronx locations, impacting my constituents.
I’m also worried that the pricing model is exclusionary. New York has always been a tale of two cities — the haves and have-nots. Will congestion pricing just clear the roads for those who can afford to pay the tolls and keep driving in Manhattan? While prohibiting people from the outer boroughs from accessing jobs, school, and other opportunities?
Congestion pricing will likely inspire other similar systems around the country. What would a successful system look like to you?
I don’t have a silver bullet, but I’d begin by asking “Who are the main culprits of congestion?” I would try to avoid putting the burden of this cost on everyday commuters from the outer boroughs. I have no qualms with people from New Jersey paying extra fees to come here.
And there have to be exemptions — for people with disabilities, for instance. If I can’t even get on my local train and I’m forced to use Access-A-Ride or rideshare, should I be burdened with paying an extra tax when I have literally no other means to move around the city? That same argument could be used for a single mother who has to get to work and drop off her kids in different parts of the city. Should she be burdened with this tax? Is it her fault or is it the city’s and state’s fault for not providing adequate service? That goes double for people who have to commute during off-peak hours.
The M.T.A. says these funds will be used to ameliorate some of the health issues you talked about earlier.
That’s part of the conversation now, as I understand it. The governor has committed to addressing the environmental impact in the Bronx. I have my doubts, but if this operates as intended, then, yeah, more and more of that money should be shifted to these communities.
For instance, right now we have an initiative in the works to cap the amount of traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway. If we’re really going to talk about reversing what Robert Moses did to our cities and especially these communities, then congestion pricing could reinvent itself. But it goes back to the question of what communities are the loudest.