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Why Some New York City Residents Are Suing Over Congestion Pricing

LocalWhy Some New York City Residents Are Suing Over Congestion Pricing

Kathryn Freed does not own a car, gets around by bus and subway, and supports the concept of congestion pricing. As a city councilwoman from Lower Manhattan in the 1990s, she wrote a bill that looked to the policy to ease gridlock.

But now, Ms. Freed is part of a group, New Yorkers Against Congestion Pricing Tax, that is suing to block the program, which is scheduled to start charging tolls next month to drive into Manhattan at 60th Street and below.

The program, the first of its kind in the nation, has drawn an outcry from drivers from New Jersey and the surrounding region. Now, it faces its latest legal challenge, in U.S. District Court in Lower Manhattan from city residents and New York elected officials who also oppose it and are mounting a last-ditch effort against it.

The program is intended to reduce congestion in the city’s central business district and raise billions for the mass transit system that millions of New Yorkers rely on every day.

But opponents say it would shift more traffic to the neighborhoods where they live and work as drivers gravitate to toll-free routes like the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive. As a result, they say, residents in some of the city’s most disadvantaged communities, including the Lower East Side, East Harlem and the South Bronx, could find more traffic and pollution on their doorsteps.

“We don’t want the pollution, and I don’t think we should have to have it,” said Ms. Freed, who lives on the Lower East Side and has chronic bronchitis. “Come up with a better plan.”

The lawsuit filed by New Yorkers Against Congestion Pricing Tax is scheduled to be heard this week before Judge Lewis J. Liman along with two related lawsuits against congestion pricing — one by a second group of city residents and the other by Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, and Vito J. Fossella, the Staten Island borough president.

A total of seven lawsuits have been brought against the program in federal courts in New York and New Jersey, including one by New Jersey officials that was argued before a judge in Newark in April and is likely to be decided before the tolls begin on June 30.

The lawsuits say that federal transportation officials allowed the congestion pricing program to move forward without a comprehensive environmental review or adequate mitigation of its adverse effects, especially in poor and minority communities where many residents have asthma and other health problems aggravated by air pollution.

The lawsuits also say that the program would impose a financial burden on many drivers in the boroughs and suburbs outside of Manhattan, some of whom do not have convenient access to mass transit, and that it would hurt small businesses in the congestion zone, which could lose customers and have higher costs for deliveries and services.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees the program, has repeatedly cited an environmental assessment of the tolling program, and a subsequent finding by the Federal Highway Administration of no significant impact.

M.T.A. officials have also said that mitigation efforts would include prioritizing the deployment of electric buses in low-income and minority communities and other measures to improve air quality.

John J. McCarthy, the M.T.A.’s chief of policy and external affairs, said this week that the “environmental assessment will make the case that congestion relief delivers less traffic, safer streets, cleaner air and more investment in the mass transit most people use.”

He added, “That benefits all New Yorkers, visitors and the businesses where they shop, eat and spend money.”

The lawsuits have asked the federal court invalidate the Federal Highway Administration’s finding and order a more thorough study, known as an environmental impact statement.

“The federal highway authority has decided to do environmental impact statements on programs that are far less encompassing than congestion pricing,” said Alan Klinger, a lawyer for both the teachers’ union and a group of residents led by Elizabeth Chan, who lives in Battery Park City.

Under the final tolling rates approved by the M.T.A. in March, most passenger cars would pay $15 a day to enter the designated congestion zone in Manhattan from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, and from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends. Trucks would pay $24 or $36, depending on their size. Those tolls would be discounted by 75 percent at night.

The program is expected to reduce the number of vehicles entering the congestion zone by about 17 percent, and raise around $1 billion annually in tolling revenue, which would be used to fund much needed infrastructure repairs and upgrades to the city’s aging subway system, buses and two commuter train lines.

The lawsuit by Mr. Mulgrew and Mr. Fossella said the “excessive” tolls would affect many public service workers who are essential to the city, including teachers, firefighters, police officers and sanitation workers, and who “would be forced to shoulder the burden of the M.T.A.’s latest fund-raising gambit.”

Mr. Mulgrew, who lives on Staten Island, said in an interview that he decided to sue when he realized the program would reduce traffic and pollution in an affluent swath of Manhattan, only to increase it in low-income and minority areas in the other boroughs.

“How come the richest people get all the benefit and the poor people get the shaft as usual?” Mr. Mulgrew said. “They get more pollution and they have to pay more out of pocket.”

M.T.A. officials said that whether workers were required to drive into the congestion zone, and whether they would be reimbursed for the tolls, was “a matter to be resolved between employees and employers.”

New Yorkers Against Congestion Pricing Tax has argued in its lawsuit that an assessment of the tolling program’s economic impact on small businesses and their workers is required under state administrative law.

Steven Traube, a co-owner of the Wall Street Grill and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said that his vendors who deliver meat, fish, vegetables and paper goods have told him they would be adding a surcharge to cover the tolls. His employees who drive to work are worried that it would take much longer to get home by subway, especially late at night. Several dishwashers have asked if the restaurant would chip in for Uber rides.

Most of his customers drive into Lower Manhattan to dine at the restaurant and some might think twice about it or spend less if they came, he said, especially since there are many restaurant choices outside the congestion zone.

“It’s making the choice a little easier,” he said. “Do I eat in Long Island? Do I stay in New Jersey? Or do I drive in and pay an extra $15?”

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