Is NYC taking wrong approach to congestion pricing?

Bern Grush over at the blog Grush Hour says New York City is making a mistake with its plan to introduce congestion pricing in America’s largest city. The mistake, he says, is in its approach. “The assumed, but apparently not absolutely fixed, technological approach for the system is the E-ZPass tag and beacon system that has operated for some years regionally in the New York area and other U.S. regions,” he writes. “This would be complemented with license plate recognition cameras to enforce payment from motorists that elect not to use E-ZPass.”

In other words, 340 gantries would be set up at access points into Manhattan, similar to the system set up in Toronto to enforce payment on our 407 toll highway. “What a terrible step they are contemplating,” wrote Grush in a recent e-mail to me.

He says the only advantages with this approach is that people are familiar with the technology and the system, while limited in function, works. But it’s also very expensive, complex, is “infrastructure heavy,” and has a more difficult time scaling up if a decision is eventually made to expand the system, which is similar to what has been used in congestion zone in London and Stockholm.

Grush has a point, but as chief scientist of Toronto-based Skymeter Corp., it’s also fair to say he’s biased. Skymeter is attempting to sway New York toward its own approach, which is a pay-as-you-go model that would combine satellite tracking with vehicle location billing. The argument is that such a system could allow city officials to get more creative with congestion pricing (i.e. introduce time-of-day incentives for parking, downtown driving, or charge per mile driven) and could easily expand the reach of the system with little additional cost. No expensive gantries would be needed, though in-car devices would be necessary for anyone entering the city.

The one problem? It’s untested. But that didn’t stop Skymeter from submitting a proposal to NYC Economic Development Corporation in hopes of pursuading the authorities to think outside the box. London is apparently considering the Skymeter approach as a way of expanding its current downtown system, and several other jurisdictions are as well.

It’s certainly worthy of a serious look, because personally, I think all jurisdictions of this size and cost should be attempting to future-proof themselves as much as possible. The gantry approach, while it works today, may proof too inflexible down the road.

So yes, Grush is biased — but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.