Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

How congestion pricing might come to Philadelphia’s streets

SEPTA's capacity issues, concerns for the poor, and legislative obstacles all are challenges if Philly wants to try congestion pricing.

A SEPTA bus on Chestnut Street tries to negotiate rush-hour traffic near 16th street, where a passenger hopped out of a car in the bus lane. Gridlock both from heavy pedestrian traffic in the shopping district and congestion has made it difficult for SEPTA's most basic service.
A SEPTA bus on Chestnut Street tries to negotiate rush-hour traffic near 16th street, where a passenger hopped out of a car in the bus lane. Gridlock both from heavy pedestrian traffic in the shopping district and congestion has made it difficult for SEPTA's most basic service.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Congestion pricing is coming to New York City, and it is spurring interest both as a funding option for SEPTA and a way to cull the cars clogging Philadelphia streets.

“It makes a difference,” said Christopher Puchalsky, director of policy and strategic initiatives for the city’s transportation office. “We always try to keep an eye out for best practices and see if we can make it work in Philadelphia also.”

Congestion pricing is a fee charged to vehicles traveling into or within a predetermined area of a city at certain hours of certain days. The goal is to discourage people from driving into a city’s busiest areas so they turn to public transit instead.

New York City’s experiment with congestion pricing will provide valuable data for Philadelphia, Puchalsky said Tuesday, but that doesn’t mean drivers will soon have to worry about paying a toll to cross South Street or Spring Garden. Philadelphia has no policy proposal for congestion pricing, and Puchalsky has said in previous interviews that it would likely take hundreds of thousands of dollars to study how to do it right before attempting it. Even if the city wanted to make it happen, it would need approval from the state legislature for what amounts to a new tax.

“I’m hesitant to start slapping even more fees and even more taxes on folks who are already contributing the lion’s share,” said State Rep. Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery County), who sits on the House Transportation Committee.

New York state approved a budget Sunday that included permission for New York City to implement congestion pricing in 2021. Though fees have not been set, it is expected that driving into Manhattan from 60th Street to the Battery will cost a vehicle at least $10, according to the New York Times coverage of the issue. Cars would likely be charged via E-ZPass or a similar system, or with cameras that would photograph license plates and send a bill to cars’ owners. The expectation is that the congestion fee would raise up to $1 billion annually for the city’s struggling Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which has been overwhelmed by the costs of maintaining the subways.

The possibility of creating a new source of revenue that also reduces traffic is provocative. Philadelphia is itself struggling with traffic. A scorecard on congestion in cities nationwide found Philadelphia had the ninth-worst congestion among American cities (Boston was No. 1. New York City was No. 4.) Philadelphia drivers spent 112 hours in congestion last year at a cost of $1,568 per person, according to the report released in February by INRIX Inc., a transportation analytics company based in Washington.

“As cities take on gridlock and congestion with meaningful policy solutions like congestion pricing, I’m certainly paying attention,” said City Councilwoman Helen Gym, who applauded the introduction of congestion pricing in New York City.

Along with raising drivers’ blood pressure, congestion slows public transportation, particularly SEPTA’s buses, which are losing riders in part due to slower service, said Erik Johanson, the transit agency’s director of innovation.

>>READ MORE: Why is Philly stuck in traffic?

Congestion pricing has proven effective in London, which implemented it 16 years ago. Traffic thinned, public transit use grew, and delays dropped by 30 percent in the first three years of the program, according to the British think tank Centre for Cities.

Congestion pricing came up as a possible solution to Pennsylvania’s current transportation funding crisis in a report issued Monday by a group of Southeastern Pennsylvania government and business leaders. Congestion pricing, described as additional tolling on Pennsylvania’s interstates and other sources, most likely including Philadelphia streets, could raise $200 million a year, the report estimated.

The state legislature determines what municipalities can tax, so Harrisburg would have to approve congestion pricing. Stephens was concerned that congestion pricing could push employers out of the city.

“My gut reaction is it sounds like a way to get fewer people from working in the city, too,” he said.

About 84 percent of Montgomery County workers drive to their jobs. In Philadelphia, 59 percent of workers drive, according to the U.S. Census.

Puchalsky expressed concern for the city’s poor as well. Congestion pricing would have to be done in a way that didn’t penalize lower-income people who need to drive for work. It would be less of a problem, Johanson said, if public transportation were robust enough to provide for everyone who might otherwise drive.

“During the peak periods, we’re approaching capacity issues on our rail system,” he said. “We would need to do some careful planning around making sure our system was capable to carrying all those extra people.”

Puchalsky has suggested introducing congestion pricing to Philadelphia with a fee on ride-share vehicles traveling in Center City and University City between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

>>READ MORE: Taxes and fees recommended as solution to Pennsylvania’s $450 million transit problem

It’s likely Philadelphia won’t consider congestion pricing until after New York City has allowed its program to run for some time, Puchalsky said. Still, New York is the first American city to try congestion pricing, and being the first breaks ground for others.

“The New York work does make this more feasible than it was in the past,” he said. “We’re not New York, but we do have similar downtown density. We definitely have comparable issues.”