The new congestion pricing framework enacted in the state budget has been touted as a remedy for some of New York City’s thorniest problems, from funding repairs for our beleaguered subways to easing the gridlock on Manhattan’s busiest streets. Exactly how the plan will accomplish those goals — if it can accomplish them at all — remains to be seen.
But this much is clear: The burden should not fall on the backs of already underpaid city workers, especially not the public safety professionals who protect the public. What we know so far is that the new tolling system will be in effect on the roads below 60th St. in Manhattan, with the FDR and West Side Highway exempted.
But the cost of the toll and to whom it will apply, among other lingering policy decisions, will not be solidified until late next year. That means there is time to get the policy right.
It should include exemptions for first responders and other public employees in critical roles.
Official emergency vehicles — patrol cars, fire trucks, ambulances, etc. — should obviously be exempt. But those vehicles don’t run unless first responders are able to get to work. We shouldn’t have to pay a toll every time we report for duty.
Police officers should receive an exemption because we require the greatest possible flexibility to get to work. Our regular work schedules are anything but regular. We protect New York City 24 hours a day, 365 days year, and we are often required to report for duty at times and locations that are not adequately served by any form of mass transit.
We are often required to report on short notice, or to locations other than our regular command, or in emergency situations that require us to travel in any type of weather. As a result, many police officers are left with no choice but to drive to and from work on a daily basis. If we don’t, we may not make it to our assigned posts on time, or at all.
Congestion pricing would not only impact police officers assigned to precincts in the congestion pricing zone. On any given day, a police officer assigned to Queens or the Bronx might be required to report to an NYPD facility in lower Manhattan, or to staff a special event in Midtown.
To be sure, some of these challenges are shared by other public safety professionals. And the financial burden of just getting to work is emblematic of a larger problem in our city. Already, police officers and other outer-borough residents must pay New York’s sky-high bridge and tunnel tolls. Just last week, the Verazzano just became the most expensive bridge in the United States, another hit to the steep cost of living in one of the world’s most expensive areas.
Every new fee adds up, especially for police officers and other city workers whose pay has not kept up with inflation. Compared to other metro area police departments, New York City police officers are paid upwards of 30% less. If the city wants to continue to attract and retain the Finest, this situation cannot stand.
Fortunately, nearly the entire City Council wants to fix this inversion of common sense. Forty-two of the 50 current councilmembers recently sent letters to Mayor de Blasio demanding a contract that includes market-rate pay for police officers. But if the city and state once again dig into cops’ pockets with new work-related expense, we will be even further away from that goal.
If New York wants to become safer, more prosperous and more welcoming city for all New Yorkers, public safety professionals need the appropriate support from our elected officials. New taxes are the opposite of what’s needed. And no one should doubt how serious a problem this is. Police officers and our families are at a breaking point.