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00:59 - Source: CNN
Washington, DC CNN  — 

Manhattan is 22.7 square miles, and on any given day has tens of thousands of cars creeping through its avenues and streets. It’s the densest part of the United States, and for years transportation and environmental experts have pushed for charging drivers fees that would discourage them from entering the heart of the city by car.

This process is called congestion pricing, and the state legislature signed off on funding last year. Advocates say that congestion pricing offers environmental benefits like better air quality as well as a reduction of traffic.

But federal rules require an environmental review to be completed first, to assess any negative environmental impacts. New York’s leadership says the federal government is using the review to hold up the project.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority says it’s waiting for the government to tell it what type of environmental review is necessary. The delay in a decision will soon slow the launch of congestion pricing, it says. The MTA says it’s had conversations with the federal government since last spring, and that since January the government has had all of the information it’s requested.

“Please give us an answer. Let us know which road we should go down,” MTA CEO Pat Foye told CNN Business. “Holding it up while a determination is made going on a year and a half just seems counterproductive, paradoxical and cynical.”

New York had planned to begin congestion pricing in part of Manhattan as early as January 2021.

Drivers, including taxi cabs, livery vehicles, and ridehailing services, would generally pay a fee to drive south of 60th Street. The price hasn’t been determined yet and can’t be by law until November at the earliest, according to an MTA spokesman. The cost is expected to encourage drivers to take public transit instead, which would be funded in part from the fees drivers pay. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is especially in need of funding as the Covid-19 pandemic has led to massive budget shortfalls as ridership has plummeted.

Tested internationally, under review in the US

Congestion pricing has been implemented in cities such as London, Stockholm and Singapore. A 2008 US Department of Transportation study found that traffic in those cities fell 10 to 30%. Traffic speeds increased in the priced zone, as well as on nearby roads. The US Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration says that by introducing congestion pricing “London reduced emissions of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides by 12 percent and fossil fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent.”

Cities have seen other benefits such as fewer crashes and better access to public services, jobs and schools, according to a May report from the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit organization.

But the Federal Highway Administration is saying that any perceived delay is due to the fact that New York’s congestion pricing plan would be the first of its kind nationally.

“New York State’s congestion pricing proposal is still under review by the Federal Highway Administration,” the agency said in a statement in response to questions from CNN Business. “Given that this project would set precedent as the first ‘cordon’ congestion pricing toll zone in the United States, it requires thorough consideration and review.”

But transportation experts say a decision on what type of review shouldn’t require as much time as it has taken.

Unprecedented delays

“This is kind of unprecedented,” said Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit that promotes development in the New York region. “It’s usually such a quick part of the process. There’s no chance they can’t answer that question from a technical point of view.”

Wright said his group hasn’t tracked how long it generally takes to get a decision from the federal government on what type of environmental review to do, because it hasn’t taken long historically.

DJ Gribbin, who was the Department of Transportation’s general counsel when it funded grants for congestion pricing in 2007, said that decisions on what type of review to do is generally relatively quick.

That 2007 effort fell through because of a lack of support in the New York State legislature.

“There’s always been a little bit of a policy headwind when you talk about congestion pricing. You’re talking about pricing what hasn’t been priced before,” Gribbin said.

Gribbin said that it seemed unclear why the current project would require the most time-intensive type of environmental review, which he said are generally reserved for projects that destroy habitat and potentially impact threatened or endangered species.

The other two options would be for the federal government to decide no review is necessary, or a lower-intensity review, which is called an environmental assessment.

“These are not rocket science questions,” said Beth Osborne, director of the advocacy group Transportation for America. “You look at the project, you figure out how much impact it has and you make a decision.”

Correction: The headline of this article originally said congestion pricing would apply to vehicles driving into New York City. The congestion pricing plan would only affect cars driving into Manhattan south of 60th street.