Will New York take a chance on high-tech congestion pricing?

A congestion charge point sign in London.
A congestion charge point sign in London.
TK Kurikawa/Shutterstock
A congestion charge point sign in London.

Will New York take a chance on high-tech congestion pricing?

How much drivers pay could depend on what technology is used to charge them.
August 25, 2019

Congestion pricing is coming to New York City, and while a number of questions have yet to be answered – who will be charged and how much, for example – the city is on its way to becoming a congestion pricing pioneer. Whether the Empire State will take the lead on piloting new technology to facilitate congestion pricing is another story.

In April, the state Legislature passed a congestion pricing plan that cordons off Manhattan’s central business district south of 60th Street as a congestion zone where cars will be charged a fee to enter. The flat rate for cars is expected to be between $11 and $14, and revenue will be put in a lockbox to provide at least $15 billion for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s 2020-2024 capital program.

Before New York can move ahead, however, the MTA’s Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority has to decide what kind of congestion pricing technology will be used. That question may not be as controversial as what groups will be exempt from paying the fee, but the technology that’s put in place could play a role in determining what kind of pricing scheme is used.

On the table are a few different options. When it comes to the most proven method, experts point to something like the highway tolling that is done by companies like E-ZPass, which uses radio-frequency identification, or RFID. In that system, small RFID transponders are placed on a vehicle’s windshield and read by devices on large overhead structures called gantries. “We can use something like E-ZPass in these vehicles which we know works well, and it works all over the country,” said Sarah Kaufman, the associate director of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation. “Many, if not almost all drivers own an E-ZPass. So it would probably be the easiest transition for drivers technologywise.”

The city could replicate the system London implemented, which uses video cameras mounted on gantries or signposts to detect license plate numbers as a way to track vehicles entering the congestion zone. This method – often referred to as automatic license plate recognition – has been used in the United States on toll roads for enforcement, even in conjunction with RFID transponders. If a vehicle drives through an E-ZPass gantry without having a transponder in the vehicle, cameras mounted on the same gantry can photograph the license plates of the car in violation. Most of the infrastructure that makes up cashless tolling consists of RFID transponders, license plate cameras or some combination of both.

Both the RFID transponder and license plate approaches were cited in a congestion pricing request for proposals from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. And recent reports suggest that the MTA is leaning toward the license plate approach to avoid using gantries. Documents accessed by the Daily News offered a glimpse at one approach being considered by the MTA that would mount cameras or other equipment on 40-foot light poles on the border of the congestion zone.

“You want to reuse as much existing infrastructure as you can. I understand you don’t want gantries in front of Central Park.” – Kevin Hoeflich, HNTB’s senior vice president and chairman of toll services

The MTA, however, is still currently soliciting proposals from potential vendors while the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority works with the city and state transportation departments on congestion pricing infrastructure. The MTA has also notified potential bidders that traditional gantries won’t be accepted, and proposals should prioritize using existing infrastructure and blending in to the streetscape.

Kevin Hoeflich, senior vice president and chairman of toll services at HNTB – a transportation firm that advised Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Fix NYC congestion pricing panel – maintained that gantries and transponders are the tried-and-true method. Still, he said what works on a highway may not be practical in an urban area. “You want to reuse as much existing infrastructure as you can, that just makes sense,” Hoeflich said. “I understand you don’t want gantries in front of Central Park.”

Hoeflich said photographing license plates was a somewhat reliable method, citing London as a city where it has worked effectively, but it has limitations. “The challenges that come in with cameras are, particularly in a highly congested area, it’s not always easy to get a visual on the plate,” he said. “Think of bumper-to-bumper traffic and trying to take numerous pictures of each and every single plate.” Some amount of leakage – vehicles getting through the congestion zone without being charged – could be a risk with cameras, Hoeflich said.

While the MTA documents displaying renderings of equipment mounted on light poles could suggest that the MTA is leaning toward a more traditional approach like license plate cameras, the agency hasn’t limited its search. This spring, the agency also put out a request for alternative technologies that could support a congestion pricing program, and even allow for more flexible pricing schemes.

The request for technology listed five potential approaches that wouldn’t necessarily rely on the gantries or other costly infrastructure. Among them were roadside Bluetooth readers, smartphone applications, global navigation systems and connected vehicle technology. With more cars being installed with Bluetooth radio, GPS or other technology, cameras and transponders are not the only way for vehicles to be recognized and accounted for by a congestion pricing system. In fact, something like a smartphone app or GPS could allow for more complex pricing schemes. Instead of charging a flat fee when entering or exiting the congestion zone, an app could track where a vehicle travels within the congestion zone or how long they’re in the congestion zone. That way, a vehicle that spends three hours driving in the congestion zone might be charged more than a vehicle that spends 15 minutes in the zone.

Those are the kinds of policies that could be possible with this “data-based approach,” said Paul Salama, co-founder and chief operating officer at ClearRoad, a company that helps governments implement road usage pricing using a variety of sources, including through smartphone apps or plug-in GPS devices in cars. The company, which has had conversations with the MTA, is policy agnostic and could match vehicle data to whatever policy a given government chooses to implement.

“All we’re doing is taking the GPS data and applying a policy to it. But we don’t care where the data comes from,” Salama said. “So unlike E-ZPass – which is a single system (in which) everybody has the same device – or a version of the same device – we’re talking about, it could be this device from this company, it could be the car itself, it could be a smartphone.”

The benefit of a smartphone app is that most people have smartphones and charging congestion fees directly to an app wouldn’t require building infrastructure like gantries. Still, others have raised questions about relying on smartphone apps or other cutting-edge technology. Kaufman said the license plate camera approach, where they are mounted on lamp posts and poles, makes the most sense to her. “Then you’re charging the car rather than the app,” she said. “There might be four phones in a car. And how does the system know that and know to only charge one and know which one is being used by the driver?”

With plans to send $15 billion in revenue from congestion pricing to public transit fixes and improvements, there’s not much room for error. “The deeper you get into a new technology solution, the less proven it is and what you’re putting at risk is revenue,” Hoeflich said. “I think what has to happen is each urban area (has to ask) how much risk are they willing to take? And how much revenue are they OK with not being able to collect?”

Both Hoeflich and Salama said new technology like a smartphone app or GPS system could be tested alongside more traditional approaches.

“I think what the right approach would be for any urban area would be to have some of these folks come in, and if they say they can do this, do a pilot and make them prove it before you do any type of wide-scale deployment,” Hoeflich said. “This stuff is coming at some point, nobody can predict when. You don’t want to have to be taking down gantries and all kinds of things because the next wave of technology comes in. You want to be flexible and adaptable to what could be coming as much as you can.”

Aside from revenue goals, the legislation passed by state legislators is scant on details. The open-ended plan has led to different groups and localities clamoring for exemptions from tolls. Emergency vehicles and vehicles carrying people with disabilities were promised exemptions, but Staten Island drivers, truck drivers and motorcyclists are among the many also arguing that they shouldn’t be subjected to congestion fees. Exemptions may be possible even if New York opts for a more traditional technological approach, but something like a smartphone app could allow for more flexibility in facilitating those exemptions. Salama described a scenario in which police – who are among those asking for an exemption – might use GPS to determine when an officer is driving to a Manhattan precinct and know not to charge them.

“The tricky thing there is that every time you give another exemption, you make everyone else pay more.” – Kate Slevin, Regional Plan Association senior vice president of state programs and advocacy

Even so, many warn against allowing too many exemptions. “The tricky thing there is that every time you give another exemption, you make everyone else pay more,” said Kate Slevin, senior vice president of state programs and advocacy at the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit research organization. “It’s really a balancing act to come up with the best program.”

While the MTA is charged with making those decisions, a six-person panel of experts on the Traffic Mobility Review Board will first offer recommendations for what kind of pricing scheme should be put in place. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio will recommend one appointment to the panel while the MTA board will determine the rest, and those appointments are expected to be made in the near future.

Since the Traffic Mobility Review Board must make its recommendations by the end of next year, there’s not much time to waste, and it’s not just New Yorkers watching with anticipation. “We absolutely have to get it right here in New York. We’ve already received calls from people in Seattle and Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, D.C. – the whole country is watching what happens here, because they know that we are going to need new approaches like congestion pricing to address the challenges ahead,” Slevin said. “They’re looking at New York City to really develop the model and test the model here.”

Hoeflich compared the situation to interstate tolling, which a handful a states are looking at doing. “Once somebody does it successfully, that becomes the blueprint, and many states will follow,” he said. “I think that congestion pricing puts New York in the same position.”

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.
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