This story was produced through the City Limits Accountability Reporting Initiative For Youth (CLARIFY), City Limits’ paid training program for aspiring public-interest journalists.
Kai Kin, 59, a food delivery driver, commutes from his house in Bayside to Flushing and Lower Manhattan everyday. Along his route are highways, Ubers, and — ultimately — congestion. But now, lawmakers intend to reduce traffic congestion in Lower Manhattan by implementing a congestion pricing fee, affecting the lives of New Yorkers like Kin.
In April, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced drivers will have to pay a fee to enter Lower Manhattan below 60th Street starting in 2021, an effort to ease congestion and help raise revenue for the subway system. As part of the budget plan, Northeast Queens riders at the Auburndale, Bayside, Broadway, Douglaston, Flushing-Main Street, Little Neck, and Murray Hill stations will get a 20 percent reduction in their monthly Long Island Railroad passes starting in January 2020, according to Assembly Members Nily Rozic of Fresh Meadows and Edward C. Braunstein of Bayside — an effort to encourage residents not to drive into the congestion pricing area and to take the railroad instead.
But many drivers and LIRR commuters in northeastern Queens, which includes several so-called “transit deserts” with limited subway access, remain skeptical of congestion pricing, with several saying the cheaper commuter rail tickets aren’t enough to soften its blow or convince them to ditch their cars, according to interviews conducted by City Limits.
“It’s heartbreaking, really,” says Kin, who drives into Lower Manhattan for his job delivering food in Chinatown. “It’s not a matter of wanting but of forcing us to drive into the congestion pricing area. People who drive like us because of delivery have no choice but to pay the fee.”
In District 26 where Kin lives, about 65 percent of commuters drive to work, but only 5.7 percent of those drivers commute into the congestion pricing zone and would be directly impacted by the fee, according to an analysis by the Tri-state Transportation Campaign.
Still, 54 percent of Queens residents remain opposed to congestion pricing, according to the results of a Quinnipiac poll released last month. Even those who don’t drive into Manhattan express worries about the potential impact the plan might have on other things like parking.
“It’s going to make it a nightmare for anyone who lives above 60th Street in Manhattan, because people are going to park their cars out of the congestion pricing zone and not drive into there, and take public transportation,” says Joe I., an occasional LIRR commuter who declined to give his last name.
His concern about parking issues along the periphery of the congestion pricing zone is one that’s been raised before by others (though at least one transit expert predicts the impact of that will be minimal). Joe says he also worries that public transit will become overburdened once the congestion pricing fee goes into effect.
“It just seems like another overburdening tax that’s not going to do any good,” he says.
Ellen Miller, who takes the railroad from Queens every month with her husband to meet their daughter in Manhattan, says she doesn’t buy monthly LIRR passes, so won’t be directly impacted by the planned discounts. But she sympathizes with drivers who will have to pay congestion fees.
“Congestion pricing is not really fair for residents in the other boroughs,” she says.
Michael Feiner, president of the Bayside Hills Civic Association, which represents more than 1,200 households in the neighborhood, agrees. He feels the tolls will not work in discouraging driving — as “creatures of habit,” he says, drivers get into their cars and are used to city traffic, a behavior he thinks congestion pricing will not alter.
“If we’re accustomed to being in our cars, we’ll be in our cars. I don’t think we’re going to shift so fast. That’s the not the way we are,” he says, adding that “all these extra charges and fees” are unfair to motorists. He too is concerned about the impact congestion pricing could have on parking in neighborhoods around the tolling zone.
“It will be more difficult to park. It will have a negative impact on our city,” he says.
Others, though, agree with transit advocates who see congestion pricing as an essential tool to combating traffic, and to raising much-needed revenue for the city’s ailing subways.
“I understand and I kind of agree with it, because there is a lot of congestion in Manhattan,” says Queens commuter Veronica L., who declined to give her last name. She said the LIRR discounts for Queens residents would be a “huge help.”
“If it’s being used to better the subway or roads, I’m all for it,” she says. “But sometimes, I feel like we’re getting charged so much that I don’t see anything from it.”
The details of the state’s congestion pricing program — including exactly how much drivers will have to pay, and whether any groups will be exempt from the fees — will be determined by a six-person panel that has yet to be formed. The panel, whose five members will be appointed by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and one member by the mayor, is charged with releasing its recommendations at the end of 2020.
Kin, the delivery driver, feels those whose jobs require them to drive into the congestion zone will keep doing it, even after the new fees go into effect.
“We don’t choose to drive into Lower Manhattan. We have to,” he says.