Letter to MTA Regarding Congestion Pricing Disability Exemption

Climate and Energy Justice, Disability Justice, Health Justice, News

Janno Lieber
Chair and Chief Executive Officer
Metropolitan Transportation Authority
2 Broadway
New York, NY  10002

March 11, 2024

Dear Chair Lieber:

We write to urge you to rework your current congestion pricing exemption plan to better follow the intent of the state’s congestion pricing law. Legislators included the exemption because they knew the potential burden congestion pricing would place on New Yorkers with disabilities, who often do not have other transportation options. The MTA’s Individual Disability Exemption Plan proposal falls short of the legislature’s goal.

At the same time, our groups, who represent the interests of hundreds of thousands of disabled New Yorkers, want to reiterate our support for the goals of congestion pricing.

We want congestion pricing to work: It will bring in billions of dollars for subway accessibility projects, system expansion and the regular track replacement, new car and bus purchases and other essential upgrades the system needs to serve our community and the rest of New York.

The elevators and other accessibility projects are of particular importance to many of us, since they result from a 2022 federal court settlement we made with the MTA that requires the authority to devote 14.69% of its transit capital funding over the next three decades to make at least 95% of the system’s stations accessible. Other lawsuits, including a 2017 suit regarding the poor maintenance of subway elevators, and a 2022 lawsuit regarding the gaps between subway cars and platforms, remain in court.)

We also recognize the potential benefits from reduced congestion, including faster buses, Access-A-Ride vehicles and emergency vehicles; less air and noise pollution; and safer streets for pedestrians. These are crucial in making the city a better place to live.

No matter what, though, the MTA must fund accessibility improvements. If the State of New Jersey or other congestion pricing opponents win in court, that will be no excuse for the MTA to back out of its commitment to accessibility.

Congestion pricing must not burden the disability community 

The legislature wisely included the disability exemption, which many of our groups advocated for, because they recognized that the city’s subway system is largely inaccessible, that Access-A-Ride is woefully inadequate, and that there is virtually no local bus service into the congestion pricing zone from other boroughs. Along with an exemption for emergency vehicles, it was the only exemption written into the law.

Beyond the limited transportation options that make it difficult to find and maintain employment, many disabled New Yorkers live at or near poverty level incomes, in part because of government policies that restrict employment for many people getting disability benefits.

The MTA must improve its current disability exemption proposal

Since Albany lawmakers approved congestion pricing in 2019, the MTA has had nearly five years to consult with the disability community, design its disability exemption plan, and implement any necessary technological improvements needed for a fair program. Yet here we are, only a few months away from the expected launch of congestion pricing, discussing a plan that was presented to us for the first time last week.

We appreciate that the MTA already has changed its flawed initial proposal to offer the exemption only to drivers or vehicles owners with state-issued disability plates, after hearing from disability advocates and others.

The current proposal is a significant improvement. The decision to extend the exemption to anyone already authorized to use Access-A-Ride and to anyone who has a New York City Parking Permit for People with Disabilities (NYC PPPD), both recommendations our community made, will broaden the number of New Yorkers with disabilities who will be eligible for an exemption permit, in accordance with the legislative intent. In addition, the MTA must leverage other existing local, state and federal programs to establish a process for other people with disabilities to apply for the disability exemption.

We have several suggestions for additional improvements, including:

  1. The MTA must move swiftly toward a person-centered exemption plan rather than a vehicle-centered approach: The MTA’s current proposal to allow people to apply their exemption to a vehicle—and only one vehicle—would unfairly restrict the movement of disabled people. It would mean that people would have little flexibility if, for example, the vehicle they have assigned the exemption to is in the shop, being used for something else or they rely on multiple friends or family members to get around.

The proposal also ignores the wide variety of ways people with disabilities travel in vehicles in New York City. Under the current plan, medallion taxis and for-hire-vehicles are not fully exempt from the congestion charge, and those charges would be passed on to the disabled rider.

The MTA must take another approach by investigating and implementing technology that would allow disabled New Yorkers and others with the exemption to travel more freely. For example, the exemption could be linked to a person’s cellphone and would go into effect only if the cellphone owner was in a vehicle when it was subject to the congestion zone fee. This would allow much great flexibility for disabled New Yorkers, including the ability to travel in more than one vehicle in the congestion zone, including taxis and for-hire services, without incurring charges.

This type of technology already exists and is in use today. (We recognize that not everyone has a cellphone, but a significant majority of disabled New Yorkers do. As part of a person-centered exemption program, the MTA would need to explore other ways of accommodating New Yorkers without cellphones.) Beyond offering increased flexibility, a person-centered plan also would greatly reduce the potential for abuse.

We understand that it may not be possible to implement a more flexible and fairer Individual Disability Exemption plan initially, but we urge the MTA, at a minimum, to set a timetable for the adoption of this kind of technology, including issuing requests for proposals to support this goal.

  1. The MTA must consider ways of allowing more flexibility in its current plan, including allowing people to assign their exemption to a second vehicle if necessary, as is now done in London. We understand the concerns the MTA has about potential fraud in allowing people to designate a second vehicle, but the potential for abuse should not be an excuse to deny the flexibility we need and could be largely eliminated entirely with the cellphone technology we recommend above.
  2. The MTA must establish a way to apply for and receive an exemption remotely. The current plan would require New Yorkers and anyone else applying for an exemption (other than AAR passengers and PPPD holders) to travel in person to lower Manhattan, for an in-person assessment. This exceeds the requirements of the PPPD program, which requires medical documentation only, and unnecessarily burdens disabled tourists and occasional and first-time visitors. Getting to an assessment is a significant burden, given the lack of accessible transit.
  3. The MTA must communicate with on-demand Access-A-Ride riders that they will not be subject to the congestion pricing charge, assuming that is the case. We were reassured to hear from one MTA representative that Phase 2 on-demand participants wouldn’t be subject to the charge, but it is unclear how this would happen. The on-demand program has already imposed severe restrictions on how much the MTA will pay for an on-demand trip and is charging existing congestion fees and tolls that exceed the MTA’s “subsidies,” making the program far less useful to participants. Adding an additional charge would make on-demand service even less helpful.

We appreciate your moving forward with our recommended improvements to the Individual Disability Exemption Plan, and we look forward to working with you to improve IDEP. At the same time, we are committed to working with you to get congestion pricing and the improvements it promises in place.

Yours truly,

Joseph G. Rappaport
Executive Director
Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled

Margaret Della
Interim Executive Director
Bronx Independent Living Services

Sharon McLennon Wier, Ph.D., MSEd., CRC, LMHC
Executive Director
Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York

Jean Ryan
Disabled In Action of Metropolitan New York

Brandon Heinrich
Transportation Equity Working Group
Downstate New York ADAPT

Terence B. Page
Greater New York Council of the Blind of
American Council of the Blind of New York State

Yaw Appiadu, MPH
Executive Director
Harlem Independent Living Center Inc.

Christopher Schuyler
Managing Attorney, Disability Justice Program
New York Lawyers for the Public Interest

Jessica Murray
Rise and Resist Elevator Action Group

Joseph M. Delgado
Chief Executive Officer
SILO—Suffolk County’s Independent Living Center

Michelle Sabatino, MSW
Executive Director
Staten Island Center for Independent Living

Maria Samuels
Executive Director
Westchester Disabled on the Move

Margaret Nunziato
Executive Director
Westchester Independent Living Center


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