NEW YORK (AP) - Long ringed by some of the most expensive toll roads in the U.S., New York City is poised to take things even further with a plan to use automated license plate readers to charge drivers who motor into the most congested parts of Manhattan during times when crosstown traffic is at its worst.
If the plan becomes official as part of a state budget deal being hammered out this weekend, New York would be the first U.S. city to join the ranks of London, Stockholm, Milan and Singapore with such a system, forcing drivers to decide if the high price makes public transportation a better option or if the trip is worth it at all.
Revenue from the tolls would go toward fixing the metropolitan area's increasingly unreliable public transportation system. A proposal released last year by an advisory panel put together by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the tolls could raise about $1 billion a year.
The congestion toll zone would be big, covering an area that is home to more than 600,000 people. It would run from 60th Street, near the bottom of Central Park, all the way down to Manhattan's southern tip.
The amount of the toll has yet to be determined, but earlier proposals have suggested a fee of around $12 for most drivers and up to $25 for trucks, with possible variations based on time of day and day of week.
First proposed unsuccessfully over a decade ago by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, congestion pricing was considered a political long shot until Cuomo, a Democrat, announced his support two years ago as the problems with the city's subway system became more acute and its roadways got even more crowded with the arrival of thousands of app-based livery cars.
"We now finally have the body politic ready to pay more and we have to attack congestion," Cuomo said this week on New York City public radio. "We have to get these cars off the road. You can't even drive in Manhattan."
The proposal, though, is still generating concern from the people it would impact the most: Suburban commuters who don't have great access to trains or buses, businesses that need to make deliveries, and people who live in the city's outer boroughs who would face high tolls to run errands or pick up friends downtown.
"You can't just put this onus on small businesses and the people in the outer boroughs," said Lorenz Skeeter, whose fleet of delivery vehicles would traverse the congestion zone, accruing tolls, multiple times every day.
Rolfe Swinton, who regularly comes into Manhattan from Paramus, New Jersey, for work and family day trips, said new tolls would add to the several hundred dollars a month he already pays.
"It's all hugely expensive and it's only getting worse," he said. "The problem is, what do you do? Public transport is so feeble for doing stuff at off-peak times. ... What do you do? How do you make that work? Public infrastructure is not there to support that."
The bright side of the system, policymakers say, would be more money to make public transit better and fewer vehicles on the streets, which could lead to time-savings for people and businesses that now have to budget for time spent sitting in traffic.
In London, congestion pricing has led to a reduction in cars and traffic delays, and an increase in the average travel speed in the zone.
It's having that roadway congestion eased that has moving company owner Lior Rachmany supporting the plan, even though his trucks would be crossing the potential toll boundary frequently.
"That's going to be amazing, that alone is going to make our lives much easier," he said.
The tolls, which Cuomo has proposed wouldn't start until 2021, could be collected either through automated electronic tolling, like the E-ZPass system, or bills mailed to vehicles' owners by camera images of license plates. Such a system is already in use on several of the city's bridges and tunnels.
While details have yet to be announced, many lawmakers have called for discounts for low-income commuters or for those who already pay a bridge or tunnel toll to enter Manhattan. Other asked-for exemptions have included drivers coming in from Brooklyn who don't stop in the congestion zone, but immediately head north on a highway along the East River.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio traveled to Albany on Tuesday to lobby for support of the tolls.
"April 1 is D-Day," he told reporters during his visit to the Capitol. "This is a decisive moment. If you're going to act, act this year."