As the day turned to evening and then approached midnight at the nearly seven-hour hearing, the speeches grew in volume and intensity — a cacophony of New Yorkers from all five boroughs and surrounding suburbs brought together over Zoom to either commend or condemn one of the city’s most contentious public projects.
Transit officials held Thursday night’s virtual hearing to collect input on a tolling program to reduce traffic in Manhattan. But the meeting also provided the chance to swing at one of New York City’s favorite punching bags — the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway and bus network and would benefit from the proposal.
The meeting was the first of six this month, and transportation officials plan to use feedback to hammer out specifics for the tolling program, which is expected to launch at the end of next year.
To the disappointment of New Yorkers who oppose the plan altogether, protests will likely not stop it, though officials have made tweaks to ease concerns and seem receptive to more.
A gallery of transportation officials sat stone-faced as critics lobbed accusations of conspiracy and corruption while also complaining about crime and cleanliness on the subway, at times straying far from the stated goal of the evening.
“You all should be ashamed of yourselves,” Anwaar Malik, an Uber driver, said before emphasizing the point with an expletive. “M.T.A. is just robbing money and letting people die in their trains.”
The usual technical interruptions of virtual meetings punctuated the drama.
“Can you hear me now?”
“You are on mute!”
“Is my camera on?”
The tolling plan, known as congestion pricing, is the first of its kind in the country. It aims to discourage cars from squeezing into one of the world’s busiest commercial districts — roughly the southern third of the length of Manhattan — while raising money for public transit. The zone runs from 60th Street to the Battery, but omits F.D.R. Drive and West Side Highway.
The plan has triggered outrage among taxi drivers, Lyft and Uber drivers, and car owners from all over New York and its suburbs. Under one scenario being considered, motorists could pay $23 to enter the zone.
Nearly 400 people signed up for Thursday’s meeting to express support or opposition, but they had to wait an hour while transportation officials delivered a presentation on some of the more granular details of a dense, 4,000 page report about the plan.
With that out of the way, politicians grabbed the first few speaking slots with prepared remarks tailored to the three-minute limit. By the time it was their turn, many residents were not there.
Still, cyclists, motorists and transit riders from all five boroughs and their suburbs turned out, offering an informal survey of the distinct accents scattered across the region.
“It’s inconceivable,” one woman said of the tolling plan. “It’s disrespectful and you’re, like, spitting in our faces.”
Through congestion pricing, the city hopes to reduce emissions, tamp down on traffic and boost transit investment. The fees levied to enter the area are expected to create $1 billion for public transportation annually — money that is badly needed by the city’s subways, buses and commuter rail lines. The authority is expecting $2.5 billion deficit in 2025, and congestion pricing would provide new revenue, earmarked for infrastructure improvements.
While there were many critics — several called the plan a “cash grab” — there were also supporters who urged the authority to charge ahead.
“Stay strong,” Bay Ridge resident JR Muto said as the meeting dragged past its sixth hour. “Don’t give in to the car fetishists.”