Momentum builds in Albany for congestion tolls in NYC

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Long considered a tough sell in Albany, the idea of imposing tolls on drivers entering the busiest parts of Manhattan is gaining momentum among New York lawmakers, increasing the chances that some kind of congestion tolling will pass in the legislative session that begins next month.

An influx of new Democratic lawmakers elected last month, increasingly vocal supporters in New York City and the rapidly worsening condition of the city's subways are all helping to push congestion tolling to the top of the legislative agenda. Supporters say the tolls — already in use in cities such as London, Stockholm and Singapore — will raise badly needed revenue for mass transit while also cutting down on the number of cars entering the busiest parts of the nation's largest city.

"My neighbors sent me to Albany to get the MTA fixed," said Senator-elect Jessica Ramos, a Queens Democrat. "We are a district of working-class people who need to get to work on time."

As with other complicated, contentious issues on next year's agenda — such as marijuana legalization and universal health care — the devil resides in the details. What should the toll be? Should regular commuters or small businesses get a discount? How will tolls be phased in to ensure transit agencies have the revenue in time meet the expected increase in subway and bus ridership?

Supporters will also have to convince lawmakers who represent suburban and outer borough districts that are home to large numbers of car commuters. Similar opposition has helped sink early toll proposals, including one several years ago from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Since then, the list of lawmakers who have publicly signed on to congestion tolls continues to grow, with at least 16 supporters in the Senate and more than 30 in the Assembly, and groups pushing for the tolls say they're working to secure a majority.

Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, D-Queens, announced her support two weeks ago.

"We have reached a breaking point in my community and my constituents are just fed up," she said, detailing the delays, breakdowns and station closures that are a part of daily life for many subway riders. "If you travel anywhere in the world our system is a joke. I think it's dawned on all of us that we have to fix it, and fix it in such a way that is sustainable."

Last month, a broad coalition of business groups, labor unions, environmental groups and private companies launched a new effort to get the tolls passed. The alliance, known as the Fix Our Transit coalition, includes several local chambers of commerce, the AFL-CIO, the League of Conservation Voters, several members of the clergy, and companies such as Uber, Lyft and Brooklyn Brewery.

The alliance predicts the tolls could raise more than $1 billion each year. While that's not nearly enough to pay for all the needed work to the subways, it would make a significant dent.

Last year lawmakers approved surcharges on taxis and ride-hailing services south of 96th Street in Manhattan in what was considered an initial step toward broader congestion tolls. Those new surcharges will go into effect next month. Drivers aren't pleased and say tolls should instead target the commercial vehicles and delivery trucks which they say are more to blame for congestion.

"Repeal this sham tax and replace it with a fair tax that targets the real culprits," said Jim Conigliaro Jr. of the Independent Drivers Guild.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has thrown his support behind the idea too, perhaps the strongest sign yet that the idea could be poised for passage. Speaking on New York City public radio recently, he said congestion tolls are the best option for reducing congestion while also generating money for the subways.

"It's been talked about for years, all the experts will say it's a good idea," Cuomo said on New York City public radio recently. "It's the only viable idea."