Do buses not have to pay a toll?
Among the questions facing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority as it develops its congestion pricing proposal is whether buses should charge to enter Midtown Manhattan.
Much of the outcry has focused on automobiles, but little attention has been paid to buses, which present an interesting conundrum: diesel buses add to congestion and pollution while dramatically reducing both of these things by doing simultaneously commuting with several people who otherwise might have resorted to a car.
Only two out of seven toll scenarios presented by the MTA last month exempting all buses, and a third scenario exempts only transit buses, such as those operated by the MTA and NJ Transit, and buses contracted by a public agency.
Robust public and private bus service helps the MTA achieve three of the main goals of its congestion pricing plan: reducing the number of vehicles in midtown Manhattan, improving air quality, and getting more people to use public transportation. But exempting the buses wouldn’t help the MTA fulfill its state mandate of generating at least $1 billion in revenue a year.
Joseph Schwieterman, a DePaul University professor who studies buses, said they would have to pay very little or nothing at all under the congestion pricing program.
“They cause traffic jams; they are so much better at limiting congestion,” he said. “You can’t have it both ways – you can’t encourage people to switch to public transit and increase the cost of public transit at the same time.
The authors of the MTA’s recently released Environmental Assessment note that “the addition of discounts, transit credits and exemptions would require overall toll rates to increase, resulting in a greater reduction in congestion.” If subject to tolls, some buses would pay at the highest level, which in one scenario would cost up to $103.50 to enter the congestion zone. Automobiles would pay $23 in this scenario.
Private bus company representatives who spoke at the MTA’s six recent public hearings on the issue said they support congestion pricing but don’t think they should be subject to tolls. High new fees, they said, could force them to pass the costs on to customers or could have deleterious effects on their businesses, which are trying to recover from the suspension of their services during the pandemic.
Dan Rodriguez, who works for Coach USA and is president of the Bus Association of New Jersey, said bus companies have been reducing congestion for years. He estimates that Coach, which operates MegaBus, private charters, airport shuttles and some contracted routes for NJ Transit, removes 73,000 passenger cars from Manhattan streets daily.
“It would defy the logic of this most important public policy not to exempt all buses that are aligned with its expressed goals,” Rodriguez said.
Eugene Berardi Jr., president and chief operating officer of New York-based Adirondack Trailways bus company, said, “While the goal of the [Central Business District Tolling Program] is to reduce congestion, then the use of private coaches should be encouraged, not discouraged.
Those advocating bus exemptions cite London, Stockholm and Singapore, where congestion pricing models have been around for a decade or more and have left buses out of the pricing system. Singapore launched its congestion program in 1976 and exempted buses, but over time it expanded the program and reduced the exemptions. The country’s website says buses can now be bundled with truck loads. A Singapore official did not respond to an email seeking clarification.
Jim Smith, a spokesman for NJ Transit, said there has been no “substantive conversation to date” between the MTA and NJ Transit on these issues. The MTA said it held a meeting with state agencies, including NJ Transit, before the environmental assessment was released.
“The MTA’s lack of clarity and transparency in this process has created uncertainty, which has not allowed us sufficient time to determine the full extent of potential budget impacts,” Smith said.
NJ Transit sends 3,700 buses to the Port Authority Bus Terminal on any given weekday, but they don’t “significantly affect the central business district,” Smith said. Buses pay a toll to enter the Lincoln Tunnel and take a ramp directly into the terminal, bypassing downtown streets. Sometimes buses circle the terminal waiting for a boarding area to open, but this would be eliminated during the construction of a new bus terminal, a project which is currently in the design phase and probably wouldn’t open until 2031.
The MTA said it has reviewed several scenarios to study the different impacts of exemptions, such as those for buses, and make recommendations on toll rates that will ultimately be decided by a six-member Mobility Toll Review Board. . Before the review panel can make any recommendations, the plan is subject to review by the Federal Highway Administration, which is expected to issue a decision in January.