New Jersey is suing the federal government to stop a congestion charging program that would have charged drivers to enter downtown Manhattan, citing concerns that the charging program would impose an unfair financial and environmental burden on state residents.
In its complaint filed Friday in U.S. District Court in New Jersey, the state said it was challenging the Federal Highway Administration’s “decision” to stamp its approval on congestion pricing last month, the latest federal hurdle to the program.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said the program, which aims to reduce traffic in New York while raising billions of dollars for mass transit, could begin as early as spring 2024.
The lawsuit comes two days after a local panel appointed by the MTA convened for the first time to rule on tolls. At that meeting, dozens of drivers, including suburbanites, protested the tolls.
The suit was filed by Randy Mastro, a lawyer known for his aggressive tactics, on behalf of Gov. Philip D. Murphy, Sen. Robert Menendez and Rep. Josh Gottheimer, all New Jersey Democrats.
“The bottom line is we have to hit the ground running to protect New Jerseyans,” Governor Murphy said at a news conference Friday. “We will not allow this poorly designed proposal to be rushed through.”
The lawsuit claims New Jersey drivers who need to get to Manhattan for work should not have to pay to fund the tolling program, which will generate $1 billion a year for the MTA, which runs New York’s subway and bus network.
He also pointed to findings from an environmental assessment released by the authority that concluded drivers who bypass the new tolls could increase traffic and soot in the area, including in Bergen County, New Jersey
The lawsuit calls for a more comprehensive study than the MTA’s assessment — which is tens of thousands of pages long — that said the agency did not do an adequate job of examining whether the toll program would harm people in disadvantaged communities.
Asked about New Jersey’s request on Friday, Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York said the plan had been carefully reviewed and that “congestion pricing will happen.”
“It’s not just for commuters in New York or people coming from Connecticut,” she added, referring to the MTA’s capital improvements that will be funded by the congestion pricing program. “Eighty percent of the people who work in New York, who are New Jersey residents, 80 percent use that public transportation. So that ensures that it’s there for the long term, that it’s sustainable.”
MTA spokesman John J. McCarthy called the lawsuit “baseless” and said the agency was confident the program “will stand up to scrutiny.” A spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation said the Federal Highway Administration had no comment.
News of the lawsuit drew immediate backlash from congestion pricing advocates, who said the program is critical to the long-term health of the region.
Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Transit Authority’s Standing Citizens Advisory Committee, a watchdog group, called the state’s move “outrageous” and added that “their action will hurt New Jersey voters, who will undeniably benefit from the positive effects of what congestion pricing will bring: less traffic, improved air quality and better transit in New York and the entire region.”
The MTA has not yet set tolls, but said in a report last year that it was reviewing proposals that would charge drivers entering Manhattan south of 60th Street up to $23 for a trip during peak hours and $17 during off-peak hours. The area is one of the busiest and congested commercial areas in the world.
The MTA said it plans to give a discount to certain low-income drivers, as well as set aside millions of dollars for communities that may experience more traffic due to congestion pricing, including $20 million for an asthma program and $10 million to install air filters in schools near freeways.
New York lawmakers approved congestion pricing in 2019, and the money it generates will be used to improve the city’s public transportation network, including building new subway elevators and upgrading the signals that keep trains running. By law, the money can only be used to pay for capital projects, not operating expenses.
Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for the Riders Alliance, a transit advocacy group, said New Jersey’s attempted legal blockade would prevent critical infrastructure upgrades and cause “irreparable harm” to those who rely on transit.
Other cities around the world have had success with similar charging programs. According to a study prepared for the US Department of Transportation, London, Singapore and Stockholm experienced less traffic after the introduction of tolls.
Michael Gold contributed reporting.