MTA to Hold Hearings on Tolling Commuters into NYC, as Rail Ridership Lags Pre-Pandemic Levels


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As public transit officials prepare for the seasonal increase in traffic on I-95, by train and bus as Connecticut residents return to their New York City commutes this fall, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is holding hearings next week to consider the idea of charging tolls to vehicles entering Manhattan’s central business district.

MTA is the nation’s largest transportation network, serving 15.3 million people across New York City, Long Island, southeastern New York State and Connecticut.

MTA’s Central Business District Tolling Program was authorized by the State of New York in 2019 and is now working its way through a federal environmental review process. 

A map of the New York City Central Business District Tolling Program. (Courtesy of MTA)

In an interview with the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, MTA Chief Executive Officer Janno Lieber said the program could lower highway congestion, traffic violence and air pollution. According to the MTA’s studies, tolls could range anywhere from $9 to $23.

According to Lieber, 90% of the people who arrive in the Manhattan CBD don’t drive, they take mass transit or walk. Those are the commuters, Lieber said, that MTA prioritizes.

“I don’t want to universalize it, but generally speaking it’s a better off group of people who are coming to New York by automobile and already paying all the costs associated with that,” Lieber said. 

Metro-North Railroad has reported an increase in ridership that can be expected to continue into the fall as well. 

Last year, the line reported 6,195,800 estimated riders in September and October, a 17.2 percent jump from the months of June and July. Thus far, the ridership in summer 2022 increased approximately 53.6 percent.

But while those numbers are up, they have yet to reach  pre-pandemic levels. Considering that Metro-North’s busiest days are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, CTDOT’s Communications Manager Josh Morgan attributes some of the missing ridership to remote jobs.

“Are people going to be going in five days a week ever again? Are people going to be working in Manhattan, but living in Montana because of telework? Just a lot of data, a lot of things to look at and a lot of things to consider.”

Morgan also said the department has been seeing more drivers on I-95 compared to the start of the pandemic, and with that came an increase in traffic, speeding and distracted driving. “In 2022, we’re really unfortunately on a pace here to have the deadliest year on Connecticut roadways because crashes are up,” he explained. 

While crash numbers are high, that claim is not entirely supported by the data. According to the Connecticut Crash Data Repository, there were 139 fatal crashes between Jan. 1 and July 1 of last year, the highest volume in the past 3 years. The rate of 2021 fatal accidents remains 15.8 percent higher than this year’s fatal crashes.

Morgan said the department is trying to keep roads safe for commuters by partnering with Slow Down New England, an anti-speeding initiative, and upping law enforcement efforts. He also said that the department is aware of congestion on I-95, so construction typically occurs overnight.

Jim Gildea, chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Commission, said that while he has also seen an uptick in commuters, riders want quicker travel times and viable schedules that connect all of the lines. He recommended that the state focuses on the initiatives outlined in Time for CT, a plan for faster trains and travel time improvements.

Time for CT, which was announced by Gov. Ned Lamont in June 2021, promised to save rail commuters from New Haven into New York City 10 minutes by 2022. Last month Metro-North began running three new express trains with only four stops: New Haven, Bridgeport, Stamford and Grand Central Terminal. 

Morgan said the trips from New Haven to New York generally take an hour and 39 minutes, the fastest trip in about 10 years. “That is where there’s going to be significant time savings,” he said.

According to Morgan, Lamont is pushing for CTDOT to add more trains and cut down on travel time. “There's a commitment to speed up trains, add trains where we can, support expansions of bus services because we really at the DOT want to make sure that there's options out there for people.”

In contrast with train ridership, Connecticut buses have reached pre-pandemic levels thanks to free fares. 

Doug Holcomb, the Chief Executive Officer of Greater Bridgeport Transit, said bus ridership will continue to grow and he is looking to transfer some of that success over to local rails.

Bridgeport’s bus station shares a transportation center with the city’s Metro-North stop. Despite that close proximity, he said GBT hasn’t done enough to promote train ridership. “Now’s the time, while the buses are free, to test that bus-rail connection.”

Public transit buses will continue their fare-free streak until Dec. 2022, CTDOT reported no major upcoming construction projects on I-95 in Fairfield County and Time for CT aims to cut seven minutes off rail travel time from Stamford to New York City by 2035.

“It’s really an interesting time to see where this goes on how it plays out on rail lines, bus routes and on highways,” Morgan said.

CTDOT has yet to comment on MTA’s proposed tolls, but Morgan said they are reviewing the documents and will be submitting their response soon enough. 

The project’s Environmental Assessment found that of those who work in Manhattan’s CBD, about 1.3 million commute from outside the area. Connecticut residents account for 2 percent or about 25,248 commuters. The MTA will be holding six public hearings via Zoom between Aug. 25 and Aug. 31 where they will be considering all comments.