New Jersey is suing the federal government to halt a congestion pricing program that will charge drivers to enter Midtown Manhattan, citing concerns that the tolling program will place unfair financial and environmental burdens on the state’s residents.
In its complaint, filed on Friday in U.S. District Court in New Jersey, the state said it was challenging the Federal Highway Administration’s “decision to rubber-stamp” its approval of congestion pricing last month, which was the program’s final federal hurdle.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said the program, which aims to reduce traffic in New York City while raising billions of dollars for mass transit, could begin as soon as spring 2024.
The lawsuit comes two days after a local panel appointed by the M.T.A. convened for the first time to decide on toll rates. At that meeting, dozens of drivers, including suburbanites, protested against the tolls.
The lawsuit was filed by Randy Mastro, a lawyer known for his aggressive tactics, on behalf of Gov. Philip D. Murphy, Senator Robert Menendez and Representative Josh Gottheimer, all New Jersey Democrats.
“The bottom line is that we have to put our foot down to protect New Jerseyans,” Governor Murphy said at a news conference on Friday. “We’re not going to allow this poorly designed proposal to be fast-tracked.”
The lawsuit argues that New Jersey drivers who need to reach Manhattan for work should not have to pay to fund the tolling program, which will generate $1 billion annually for the M.T.A., which runs New York City’s subway and bus network.
It also pointed to findings from an environmental assessment released by the authority which concluded that motorists detouring around the new tolls could add traffic and soot to the area, including in Bergen County, N.J.
The suit calls for a more exhaustive study than the M.T.A.’s assessment — which is tens of thousands of pages long — saying that the authority did not do an adequate job of studying whether the tolling program would harm people in disadvantaged communities.
When asked about New Jersey’s suit on Friday, Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York said that the plan had been thoroughly reviewed and that “congestion pricing is going to happen.”
“This is not just for New York commuters or people coming in from Connecticut,” she added, referring to capital improvements to the M.T.A. that will be funded by the congestion pricing program. “Eighty percent of the people who work in New York City who are New Jersey residents, 80 percent take this public transportation. So, this is making sure that it’s there long term, that it’s sustainable.”
An M.T.A. spokesman, John J. McCarthy, called the lawsuit “baseless” and said the authority was confident the program “will stand up to scrutiny.” A spokeswoman for the Transportation Department said the Federal Highway Administration had no comment.
News of the lawsuit drew immediate backlash from proponents of congestion pricing, who said the program was critical to the region’s long-term health.
Lisa Daglian, the executive director of the transit authority’s Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, a watchdog group, called the state’s move “outrageous” and added that “their lawsuit will hurt the 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 City and the entire region.”
The M.T.A. has not yet decided toll rates, but in a report last year it said it was reviewing proposals that would charge drivers who enter Manhattan south of 60th Street a fee of up to $23 for a rush-hour trip and $17 during off-peak hours. The area is one of the world’s busiest and most traffic-clogged commercial districts.
The M.T.A. has said it intends to give certain low-income drivers a discount as well as commit millions of dollars for communities that may experience more traffic because of congestion pricing, including $20 million for a program to fight asthma and $10 million to install air filtration units in schools near highways.
New York lawmakers approved congestion pricing in 2019, and the money it generates will be used to improve the city’s public transit network, including building new elevators in the subways and modernizing signals that keep trains moving. By law, the money can be used to pay only for capital projects, not operating costs.
Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for Riders Alliance, a public transit advocacy group, said that New Jersey’s attempted legal blockade will get in the way of critical infrastructure upgrades and will do “irreparable harm” to those who rely on public transit.
Other cities around the world have had success with similar tolling programs. According to research prepared for the U.S. Department of Transportation, London, Singapore and Stockholm all experienced less traffic after setting up tolls.
Michael Gold contributed reporting.