City Limits/Brandon Yam

Starting in 2020, commuters at several LIRR stations in Queens will be eligible for 20 percent discounts on their monthly rail passes — an effort to soften the blow of congestion pricing.

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.

5 thoughts on “For Many Residents in Queens’ Transit Deserts, Congestion Pricing Remains a Hard Sell


    It was four years ago when we learned about the Metropolitan Transportation Authority study for bus service in northeast Queens. This study was championed by numerous elected officials. Just as I predicted, four years later the results are still a placebo designed to placate demagogues who are not regular users of the numerous public transportation alternatives that have been available for decades. Many of the recommendations from this study are either common sense, previously known or old ideas recycled yet another time.

    Introduction of Limited Stop Service, Select Bus Service or Bus Rapid Transit are not new ideas. Looking into the “feasibility” of overnight service on the Q13, Q30 was already proven. These routes had overnight service for decades. In response to a previous MTA NYCT financial crisis, this late night service was eliminated as a cost savings measure on these and other routes. All riders will get is resumption of what was once available. The saddest recommendation was for “creation of a Downtown Flushing Bus Terminal.” This proposal has been previously studied numerous times for over 60 years! I have written about this since the 1990’s. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the availability of increased funding for additional transportation service in Northeast Queens. Operating subsidies are required to increase the level of service and reduce the amount of time one waits for a bus on existing routes. Capital dollars are required for purchase of additional buses, off board fare collection equipment, real time communications systems to notify riders for anticipated arrival of the next bus, shelters and facilities. There are no real new routes being proposed coming out of this study.

    People moved to neighborhoods in northeast Queens knowing full well that they would be living in a two fare (bus to subway) zone with longer commutes to and from work. How many of these same public officials who promoted this study have a Metro Card and ride the system like constituents do on a daily basis?

    MTA services continue to be one of the best bargains in town. Since the 1950s, the average cost of riding either the bus, subway or commuter rail has gone up at a lower rate than either the consumer price index or inflation. The Metro Card introduced in 1996 affords a free transfer between bus and subway. Prior to this, riders had to pay two full fares. Purchasing either a weekly or monthly pass further reduces the cost per ride. Many employers offer transit checks, which pay even more of the costs.

    For years, local politicians would pontificate on this issue. They claim Northeast Queens neighborhoods are a desert when it came to public transportation. As a result, residents only choice was to rely on automobiles. Study results indicated…”More than 99% of the Northeast Queens study area has local and limited bus service within one quarter mile (10 minute walk) on weekdays. Almost 98% of the Northeast Queens study area has local and limited bus service on weekends.” This validates and confirms my previous observations that there is an elaborate network of local bus services. This includes the Q12, Q13, Q16, Q27, Q28, Q31, Q36, Q43, Q46, Q88 and others connecting riders with either the Flushing #7, Union Turnpike E or F, Hillside Avenue 179th Street F or Archer Avenue/Sutphin Blvd. E, J and Z subway lines. Several bus routes include Limited Stops service that shortens the trip to and from the subway. There is a network of express buses including the Q2, Q2A, Q3, Q5, ,QM6, Q8, Q68 and others serving midtown east and west side along with the downtown Financial District. Nassau County NICE bus N20, N21, N22A, N22 and N24 routes provide service at the City Line with connections to subway stations in Flushing and Jamaica. The Q13, Q27, Q31, Q36 and Q88 all provide direct connections to neighboring LIRR Stations.

    Communities adjacent to LIRR Port Washington branch stations have prospered for decades. Schools serving students in Little Neck, Douglaston, Bayside, Auberndale and Murray Hill are some of the best in the Metropolitan New York area. Everyone shares great air quality along with a low crime rate, abundant parks, libraries, shopping, entertainment, movie theaters, hospitals and medical facilities.

    Riders on the Port Washington branch have far more abundant seating and a quick 30 minute or less trip into Penn Station, without having to change at Jamaica than LIRR commuters on other branches. Port Washington branch riders miss most service disruptions. LIRR half-hour weekday and weekedend service on the Port Washington LIRR branch, it is even more attractive.

    The old Q79 bus route was eliminated and then restored by extending the Q36. Likewise, the Q31 bus route weekend service was also eliminated and restored. The basic bus infrastructure has remained in place serving residents on all major east/west and many north/south routes. On many routes, MTA NYCT has actually reduced the headway between buses by increasing service.

    Finding $500,000 for the “Northeast Queens Restoration Study” would have been better spent on real improvements rather than lining the pockets of consultants. These funds could have supported introduction of Limited Stops bus service on the Q12 & Q13 and other routes resulting in shorter commutes to and from Flushing for riders.

    All riders ended up with was a 130 page study for $500,000 followed by press conferences and news releases designed to provide free publicity for elected officials, to assist them in greasing the wheels of future elections.

    (Larry Penner is a transportation historian, writer and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the United States Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road and MTA Bus along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ)

    • Thank you for this! The term “transit desert” should never be used with reference to Queens, which has plenty of excellent public transit options.

      In truth, this term’s use is questionable anwhere in New York City, as there is no point in the entire City that is far from a bus line.

      “Subway desert”, yes. But never “transit desert”.

      • I would definitely classify the lower half of Jamaica, Queens as a transit desert. Depending on where you are there, you have to walk at least 20 min to the nearesr bus top, and the nearest subway is almost 40 min away by bus. I rarely ever even hear it talked about when it comes to these articles. Southeast Queens needs love too.

  2. Good coverage of a complicated story; thanks! “Complicated”: NIMBY meets chicken-and-egg, which makes a hell of an omelet. (And I was delighted to read Larry Penner’s detailed comment too.)

    Successful public transit requires dense development. City Limits’ coverage of Bushwick’s and Inwood’s resistance to additional housing are good places to start. These neighborhoods — well-served by public transit — reject plans for more density.

    On the other hand, you’re right to point to eastern Queens as being short-changed by public transit. That wasn’t the plan. Consider


    Had these proposals been fully realized, eastern Queens (and LaGuardia airport) (and the Bronx) (and Staten Island!) would be better-served today. But would these currently underserved communities welcome the greater density that’s inextricably linked to good public transit?

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