Over a $15 congestion toll, ambulance personnel in NYC blast their sirens, saying, “It’s a slap in the face”

New York City’s emergency medical services personnel, who are vital to the city’s public safety, are currently grappling with a contentious issue that threatens to impact their work and livelihood. A new congestion pricing plan, set to be implemented as early as May, has sparked widespread concern among these first responders, particularly because it requires them to pay a $15 toll to drive to their jobs in Manhattan.

Oren Barzilay, president of Local 2507, the union representing paramedics, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and fire inspectors, has voiced strong opposition to the plan. He fears it will exacerbate existing hiring challenges for EMS workers in the city and potentially lead to increased response times in some of New York’s busiest neighborhoods.

The issue particularly affects those stationed south of 60th Street in Manhattan, within the congestion pricing district. More than 400 ambulance workers are assigned to three FDNY Emergency Service stations in this area.

Due to the low pay and high housing costs in and around New York City, many EMS employees reside in more affordable areas in the exurbs of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Long Island, and the northern New York suburbs. The necessity of commuting from these locations often makes mass transit an inconvenient option for them.

Currently, the salaries for EMTs range from $39,386 to $59,534 after five years of service, while paramedics start at $53,891 and can earn up to $75,872 after five years. These pay rates are among the lowest for the city’s uniformed forces.

Now, with the congestion toll, these workers face an additional financial burden of approximately $4,000 per year to commute to their jobs in Manhattan.

Barzilay has described this toll as “an insult” and “a slap in the face” to EMS workers, who are essential to the city’s healthcare system. “Our EMS workers are the city’s lifesavers. They bring emergency care directly to New Yorkers’ homes and are often responsible for bringing people back from the brink of death,” he emphasized.

He also raised concerns that the toll would deter potential hires and prolong emergency response times, particularly in the neighborhoods within the congestion pricing zone. “People are having to pay to go to work. They’re supposed to get paid to go to work,” Barzilay pointed out.

Three FDNY EMS ambulance stations located in the congestion zone – Bellevue hospital, Lower East Side, and Chelsea – are some of the busiest in the city, covering areas like the Times Square business district and the downtown financial district.

Mayor Eric Adams has mentioned the possibility of some exemptions for medical appointments and city vehicles. However, the toll program, as recommended by a state-commissioned task force, does not currently allow exemptions for EMS workers driving personal vehicles to work. This has led to concerns that any exceptions would necessitate a higher toll to compensate for lost revenue.

The congestion pricing plan aims to generate $1 billion annually, funding up to $15 billion in repairs, improvements, and expansion projects across the MTA’s network. However, Carl Weisbrod, head of the MTA’s Traffic Mobility Review Board, warned that altering any part of the plan could impact other aspects of the program.

While Gov. Kathy Hochul defends the plan, ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who initially pushed the congestion pricing law through the legislature, is now urging a reconsideration of the program.

MTA spokesman David Steckel has stated that emergency vehicles are exempt by law and that response times are expected to improve with reduced traffic. However, this exemption does not extend to EMS workers commuting in their personal vehicles.

The dilemma highlights the tension between efforts to reduce congestion in Manhattan’s Central Business District and the practical needs of the city’s vital emergency personnel. The debate continues as stakeholders and city officials weigh the potential impacts of the congestion pricing plan on the EMS workforce and overall public safety.

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