Congestion pricing and the path forward for Metro-North riders

It’s true: If you’re Metro-North riders like us, congestion pricing will improve your commute.

The reasons are obvious: more funding to upgrade and repair transit around the region means more frequent and more reliable service to more places.

Here’s another truth: Even if you never ride Metro-North, you’ll benefit, too.

Manhattan drivers, including Westchester and Rockland commuters and small business owners, waste hours in gridlock every day. Congestion pricing means less traffic and congestion for those who must or choose to drive, improving productivity and saving money on gas. And everyone in the region will benefit from better air quality, transit and improved response times for police, firefighters, and ambulances.

A family walks along the platform of the Spring Valley Metro-North station on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024.
A family walks along the platform of the Spring Valley Metro-North station on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024.

After years of preparation and studies, congestion pricing is in the home stretch and a well-thought-out plan for charging drivers is scheduled to take effect in June. The courts and politicians across the region should let it happen.

What will congestion pricing fund?

Why does the MTA need congestion pricing in the first place? The bottom line is that the system is aging and needs constant investment. We remember too well the “bad old days” of the 70s, when frequent track fires, derailments, and old and worn-out equipment made every commute an adventure. More recently, we lived through the 2017 “summer of hell,” after the MTA tried to execute an ambitious capital plan with inadequate resources and regular service suffered. The system has been remarkably resilient in its recovery from COVID, but severe storms caused mudslides and flooding last summer, showing Metro-North commuters that the MTA still has its work cut out for it.

Luckily, Gov. Kathy Hochul and our Hudson Valley delegation in the state legislature understand the importance of the MTA to the region and last year put its operating budget on solid footing for at least the next five years. Our elected officials are increasingly recognizing the essential public service provided by the MTA and the transit workers who keep it running.

But a stable operating budget is not enough. The MTA still needs resources to fund the infrastructure — the literal nuts and bolts — to keep the system running safely and reliably. The 2019 passage of congestion pricing legislation filled a $15 billion hole in the MTA’s 2020-2024 Capital Plan. It’s time to fulfill that promise.

As outlined in the 20-year needs assessment released in October, the MTA is faced with three profound challenges: a rapidly aging system, an extensive maintenance backlog after years of underinvestment, and the increasingly apparent threat posed by climate change — we can’t forget the mudslide in October; but more importantly, must think of how it can be prevented in the future.

Over the next 20 years, the MTA and Metro-North need to invest in a more resilient system; replace nearly 100 elevators; repair or rebuild 19 deteriorating platforms on the Harlem Line; replace the original trainshed through which almost all of Metro-North trains travel; upgrade Grand Central Terminal’s security system; rebuild both the Park Avenue Tunnel and Viaduct; replace the vast majority of the signal systems on the Hudson Line; and much more. Improving the ride for West-of-Hudson commuters is also a critical piece of where congestion pricing funds will go, with a $250 million investment going to essential projects for riders on the Port Jervis and Pascack Valley lines.

The work will include some highly visible improvements — like the recent work to achieve full accessibility at Scarsdale station — and others that most riders will never see. But while upgrading and expanding the 117-year-old Croton Harmon shop may not grab the headlines, investing in the backbone of our system delivers tangible benefits to riders: more cars and locomotives in service, fewer breakdowns, and safer, more comfortable trips.

And for the first time in a generation, the MTA is delivering major new projects to expand its transportation network, bringing subway service to Hudson Yards and Second Avenue, and the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Madison. Metro North service to the East Bronx and Penn Station is up next. Of course, funding will also go to support the subways and buses that many of us transfer to from Metro-North, and to the LIRR that is now more open to us with Grand Central Madison.

Unfortunately, lawsuits mean funding uncertainty for these critical projects, putting the brakes on new contract solicitations. That means longer waits for accessibility projects, new signals, and station improvements. It also has the potential to lead to higher costs — nothing gets cheaper the longer you wait.

Sixty years ago, in the midst of a financial crisis, New York stopped investing in new service and the region suffered for decades. We can’t afford to lose momentum again.

We'll never be fully satisfied

As riders, we’ll never be fully satisfied: We need to maintain high standards for service, and the MTA needs to deliver value for the money it spends, whether it comes from fares, tolls, taxes or congestion pricing. The Metro-North Commuter Council meets monthly, and we never have a shortage of questions, concerns, and suggestions that we address to the railroad’s managers.

But we also appreciate the benefits everyone in Westchester and Rockland receive from a legacy railroad system that, despite its myriad challenges, provides an essential public service that other regions envy. According to Regional Plan Association, the 211,000 Hudson Valley residents who commute into the city bring back over $30 billion in wages annually. The economic well-being of our region depends on Metro-North, regardless of how often you use it.

Put simply, we cannot have a strong Hudson Valley economy without a strong transit system and doing nothing is not an option: Without investment, service will suffer, more people will get behind the wheel, and traffic will get even worse. That’s why we’ll testify in support of congestion pricing — again — at an upcoming public hearing.

Congestion pricing is part of the solution, and we can’t afford further delay.

Michael Stanton, Rosalind Clay Carter and Walter Zullig, all residents of Westchester County, are members of the Metro-North Railroad Commuter Council.

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Congestion pricing and the path forward for Metro-North riders