On Sunday, January 14th, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) began installing camera equipment on New York highways, including FDR Drive, as part of the preparation for a controversial $15 congestion toll program to enter Manhattan’s central business district south of 60th Street. This move has sparked concerns among motorists about potential future tolls on currently toll-free highways.
License plate readers have since been attached to a pedestrian walkway above FDR Drive at East 25th Street, designed to track vehicles entering the toll congestion zone or remaining on the highway. Similar sensors are being installed on the West Side Highway, confirmed by the MTA. Both highways are currently excluded from the toll under state law.
However, the installation of this equipment has raised suspicions among drivers. Some fear that the MTA could eventually use these cameras to charge tolls on the state highway. A source expressed concern about a possible “bait and switch” tactic, where the MTA might later seek legislative approval to expand the congestion toll to these locations.
The state Department of Transportation, responsible for the FDR Drive’s upkeep, directed inquiries to the city DOT, which, in turn, suggested contacting the MTA regarding the toll reading infrastructure. This passing of responsibility has added to the public’s wariness of the agencies’ intentions.
Councilman Joe Borelli (R-Staten Island) voiced concerns about the MTA potentially expanding the congestion zone to include toll-free highways in the future. He cited past expansions of speed camera programs in the city as a precedent for such changes. Borelli said, “The legislature expanded speed cameras in the city when it was still a pilot program. The legislature can expand the congestion toll to wherever they want.”
Governor Kathy Hochul supports the congestion pricing program, which aims to raise $1 billion annually to fund $15 billion in bonds for major MTA upgrades. The program, initially approved in 2019, includes various toll discounts and exemptions. For instance, drivers using Hudson River and East River tunnels would receive a $5 discount on the $15 toll, while residents living in the congestion zone making less than $60,000 annually could deduct the cost from their taxes.
The proposed $15 daily toll would be reduced by 75% during overnight hours, with different rates for trucks and motorcycles. However, the plan faces opposition from suburbanites, outer borough residents, and various unions representing city municipal workers.
As the MTA moves forward with the congestion toll program, the debate continues over its impact on drivers and the potential for expanded tolling in the future. The situation highlights the complexities of urban transportation policy and the balancing act between generating revenue and maintaining public trust.