July 23, 2024
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July 23, 2024
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Gov. Hochul’s ‘Pause’ in NYC Congestion Pricing Plan Leaves Lawmakers Angry, Puzzled

Kirsten Gillibrand

As the New York State legislature was getting ready to wind down earlier this month by passing a flurry of bills that lingered throughout the six-month session, Governor Kathy Hochul announced on June 4 that she was temporarily halting the long-awaited implementation of congestion pricing, which would impact motorists traveling below 60th Street in Midtown Manhattan from the East Side to West Side of the borough.

Supporters of the tolling plan, mainly Democrats, immediately called on Hochul to once again reverse course, as they cited many reasons to implement the $15 toll. Many opponents of the plan, mainly Republicans, voiced support for Hochul, who put the brakes on the planned June 30 execution.

The congestion pricing plan was expected to generate $1 billion a year for the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority), a total of $15 billion over 15 years. This is part of a $54.8 billion capital program. The money would be aimed at fixing many aspects of the world’s largest mass transit system, virtually rebuilding the crumbling subway infrastructure and bus service. The money was also expected to target reducing the number of vehicles coming into Midtown Manhattan, allegedly resulting in cleaner air quality.

During a barrage of news conferences during the final two days of the legislative session, none of the supporters or opponents talked about getting federal funding for the MTA. The Jewish Link caught up with U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-Albany), who is up for reelection this year, to ask her about the funding of congestion pricing. Without making a definite promise about getting federal money to plug the billion-dollar budget gap Hochul created for the MTA by temporarily stalling the plan, Gillibrand was optimistic she could come through with all or most of the money. The federal fiscal year begins October 1. Hochul has said a new reimagined congestion pricing plan could be in effect by the fall.

Andrea Stewart-Cousins

“We’re doing our appropriations bills now,” Gillibrand told The Jewish Link. “We usually do a yearly transportation bill where we fund mass transit, so maybe we’ll be able to fund mass transit at a higher level, which would help the governor in balancing her budget. I’ll work as hard as I can to get more mass transit money. By the end of Congress, we should know if there are more sources of revenue coming into New York State to help them out with whatever needs they have.”

Gillibrand also wants a plan that has increased support from all New Yorkers.

“The truth is, congestion pricing was not unanimously supported. There were a lot of people who were worried about it. I think it is important to care about the environment, clean air and clean water, so I appreciate the effort people made to come up with a solution to clean our air and make it safer for people in New York City. I also think there are other concerns that need to be worked through to get to a more supported position.”

Gillibrand is a member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry committee; the Armed Services Committee; the Select Committee on Intelligence; and the Special Committee on Aging. She said that waiting a bit longer to implement congestion pricing or whatever the new, improved version will be called, is a good idea, especially for first responders who live on Staten Island.

“They were worried about families on Staten Island who would have to go to the city to work. There were worries about people who are first responders who have to go to the city every day and don’t get to pick and choose where they go because they are first responders,” she said. “This might give more time for more analysis and perhaps more nuance on some of these challenges for New Yorkers that need to get to work.”

For the most part, Republicans reacted with glee to Hochul’s announcement to stall the congestion pricing plan, including freshman Assemblyman Sam Pirozzolo (R-Castleton Corners, Staten Island), who said he was surprised.

“People who use the system should pay for the system, not the people who don’t use it,” Pirozzolo told The Jewish Link. “The problem is it’s being done for the wrong reason. … Staten Island had lawsuits; the other boroughs had lawsuits. It’s one billion dollars, so we were hoping that at least the lawsuit would come through, but I’m glad the governor has seen the wisdom.”

One of the reasons Hochul cited for putting the temporary brakes on the plan to reduce congestion in the heart of Manhattan was that the economy is different now than it was five years ago when the plan was signed into law by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo and Hochul was lieutenant governor.

“To blame the economy, so when things are good, we’re going to rip you off with congestion pricing? Is that what she’s saying?,” Pirozzolo asked. “You can’t afford it now but I’ll wait until you can afford it?”

Governor Kathy Hochul

Hochul also said that there would be unintended consequences with the implementation of the plan now.

“By unintended consequences, what she means is that she is protecting Democrat elected officials in the November election,” Pirozzolo said. “I don’t think she really cares much about the overall effect on the population because she is doing this to protect candidates from the backlash of voters this November.”

The Manhattan delegation is composed of all Democrats. One lawmaker from the 20-member legislative delegation talked about how idling is not just a concern with cars, buses and trucks, but idling for this legislation as well.

“My constituents are worried about the environment,” said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal (D-Upper West Side, Manhattan), who represents the 60th Street boundary line. “They are worried about being stuck in a car or in a cab when they need to go somewhere quickly. They are most worried about how to turn New York City into a much more livable city, taking into account the environmental damage, the lost time and the fact that this works in other places around the world. This is not something we’re going to stand idly by and watch happen. There is time for much more discussion and deliberation before yanking the cord on congestion pricing. None of us were consulted about this [temporary stall] and we’re the ones who passed this into law.”

Some lawmakers wanted the governor to waffle on the issue.

“I’m p— off that I can’t cross the street because there is bumper-to-bumper traffic,” said Assemblyman Tony Simone (D-Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan). “Some folks from New Jersey can’t get on the G**-damned train. I actually love the governor. I think she could change her mind again. You have a few more weeks to change your mind back the other way. Congestion pricing should happen now, not a week from now, not two years from now, not after the [November] elections, but right now for the sake of our transportation policy, for the sake of the environment and for the way my constituents can have a better, more livable city for every New Yorker. Implement congestion pricing. We don’t have a moment to waste. I represent a district that has the highest pollution from cars near the Lincoln Tunnel. Leaders stand by policies that work. Leaders take the brunt of the hits when things don’t become popular.”

At a news conference earlier this month, which included members of the state Senate, Assembly and advocates, chants of “Congestion Pricing Now” could be heard echoing through the hallways outside the Assembly Chamber. Some congestion pricing advocates said Hochul would be defeated for reelection if she did not reverse herself again before her next election bid in two years.

Gantry installed as heavy traffic, including a bus and bicyclist, whiz by.

“It’s true, this is not popular. Many things the government has to do are not always popular. Governor Hochul can hopefully redeem herself by 2026 but she has to reverse herself on this,” said Senator Liz Krueger (D-Upper East Side, Manhattan), the chairwoman of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee. “This is a terrible decision and a shocking one since it doesn’t seem that anyone knew about this. This is coming out of nowhere. We just finished a budget (in April). This was not discussed in the context of the budget.

“Half of my district is in the zone. The statement that came out that since the pandemic they [visitors] are not there? I challenge anyone to go to Manhattan and see there are more cars and vehicles than ever. There is more congestion, and the environmental impacts from congestion, than ever. We need congestion pricing because it is the right thing to do for the environment and for the people who need to live and work in Manhattan. The MTA needs the funding to make sure it can deliver on its capital commitment.

“We want a better, stronger public transportation system,” Krueger concluded. “When we cut the legs out from under the MTA capital plan, we guarantee the opposite. There is talk about canceling the contract for the Second Avenue subway, for ADA disability access to our subways and buses. There is also talk about canceling the bus and subway contract for an upstate firm, which I am told by my upstate colleague would mean the closing of a company and 600 workers losing their jobs.”

The MTA is North America’s largest transportation network, serving a population of 15.3 million people in the 5,000-square-mile area running from New York City through Long Island, southeastern New York State, and Connecticut.

The MTA network has the nation’s largest bus fleet and more subway and commuter rail cars than all other U.S. transit systems combined. It provides around 2.6 billion trips each year, accounting for about one-third of the nation’s mass transit users and two-thirds of its commuter rail passengers. MTA Bridges and Tunnels, which recorded a record 329 million crossings in 2019, carries more vehicles than any other bridge and tunnel authority in the nation.

Lawmakers representing the boroughs of Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island and Brooklyn had their own take on the single-borough tolling.

“I think the effect on the environment will be minimal because the number of cars, in my opinion, wouldn’t be different,” Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny (R-Seagate, Brooklyn) told The Jewish Link. “People will have to enter Manhattan anyway. … The congestion pricing fee is just a new tax. The number of cars coming into Manhattan wouldn’t change. Whether it’s a political decision or a decision based on the understanding that New Yorkers would not accept this tax very easily, which is also a political decision, I’m still very happy that she made this decision.”

The often-brash Assemblyman Ari Brown (R-Cedarhurst, Nassau County) said the move by Hochul was “all smoke and mirrors.”

“You had the governor of New Jersey suing them [the state of New York]. Everyone was trying to figure out how to get a fake license plate or to avoid the whole section to the cab drivers, to the Uber drivers. It was everybody trying to figure out a way. From Nassau County, most people end up taking the train, but some people drive in for whatever reason. I’ve heard from constituents who complain about the increases in the Long Island Railroad fares and the subway fares. It’s all around. It’s time for a new administration.

“If you have a business in the city you’re done,” Brown continued. “[Hochul] saw she had a problem so she’s doing a political move and she pulled it. The consequences were that people are going to vote against her and they’re not going to go into Manhattan. They have this whole fake thing about the climate. They try to do whatever they can do until they realize no one is in favor of it. Am I proud of her that she did it? No. This is a political move and that’s all it is. All of a sudden, they’re trying to be conservative and fiscally responsible.”

From the northern suburbs, Rockland County lawmakers opposed the measure.

“I praise the governor for taking a bold step. I would like to see an alternative for the capital plan,” retiring Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski (D-New City) told The Jewish Link. “We need to make sure the system is fully funded and functional. Charging folks a $15 toll is not the right way to go.”

Rockland Republicans were skeptical.

Assemblyman John McGowan (R-Pearl River) told The Jewish Link: “My initial reaction was this is great but two seconds into it I was thinking: What’s the catch? What’s the next step going to be? Is this going to be used for political bartering by the governor in some way, shape or form?

“We want to make the air quality healthier, but it has to be done in a fair and balanced way.” McGowan continued. “We have a value gap of $40 million a year. We don’t have a one-seat ride into New York City. I worry that people wouldn’t have the option to drive into Manhattan if you’re adding $15 a day, on top of gas, parking, tolls. It’s better, at least from Rockland, there is more availability but in the big picture it’s not really better … because there is no one-seat ride. You have to switch. You have to take the train; you take the ferry over or you take a PATH train.”

A full repeal of congestion pricing, not just a pause, was the echoing theme among Senate Republicans.

“She hits the pause button on congestion pricing. It’s an unfair tax on all the residents of the Hudson Valley, Long Island and throughout the boroughs of New York City. It’s a tax that nobody wants,” said Senator Bill Weber (R-Montebello). “In Rockland County we consider the MTA the ATM because Rockland residents have always been the ATM for the bad decisions of the MTA. This is another unfair tax on residents. We’re happy to see the pause but we’re not happy enough. We want a full repeal of this disastrous policy, this birdbrain scheme that was devised to continually pour money into the MTA.”

Advocates did not mince words about how they felt about the governor, whom they usually support.

“This is a bad decision,” said Blair Horner, executive director, NYPIRG, the New York Public Interest Group. “There have been no public hearings; there has been nothing that happened that the public knows about until the governor decides she wants to pull the plug by asking the MTA Board to violate their fiduciary responsibility and pull the plug on their own financing. That seems crazy. It’s time for the governor to reverse course and throw in the trash can this dumb idea.”

One trial balloon floated by the governor and got shot down almost immediately was an increase of a tax known as the PMT, the Payroll Mobility Tax.

“Anyone who follows the governor in her foolish path and votes for a PMT increase is defunding transit,” said Betsy Plum, executive director of the Manhattan-based Riders Alliance. “They are defunding the $15 billion promised to riders and they are dooming the next capital program. Any legislator who is doing this is betraying riders, workers, families, students.”

Legislative leaders were mostly mum reacting to the temporary halt to the plan until they were ready to leave session and not come back until January.

“We’re talking about the environment; we’re talking about getting people back on to mass transit, and we’re talking about creating a permanent cash flow for the MTA,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers, Westchester County). “Right now, our conference [the Democrats] is reticent to commit $1 billion annually for the next 15 years without having some understanding in place as to how we were going to deal with congestion pricing. We know we have to continue to deal with the MTA. We know how important it is. We continue to invest in it but we also want a long-term solution that really does address all of the problems.”

By the end of the session (Friday, June 7 for the Senate and Saturday, June 8 for the Assembly), when the air was sucked out of the room by Hochul’s last-minute surprise, lawmakers had no desire to continue their debates and all the talking that still needs to happen now.

“I am committed to mitigating congestion. I am open to having the conversation,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I think everybody is. How are we able to create a better environment and get people out of their cars? That’s what we’re committed to do. Congestion pricing was supposed to do that. If there is some way to accomplish that I think we need to examine it. We need to make sure we’re doing something in that area.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Eastchester, the Bronx) has not commented on the stalled plan even though the Bronx has one of the highest asthma rates in the country and is one of the poorest.

As for the governor’s part, after the rhetoric calmed down and lawmakers went home, Hochul had the final word and framed the rhetoric for stalling the implementation of congestion pricing.

“My job is not to make it harder or more expensive for New Yorkers to live in our state. New Yorkers tell me they’re just not ready right now for congestion pricing. The closer we got to the June 30th implementation date, I heard from more and more anxious New Yorkers this would be a real hardship for them,” Hochul said. “Working- and middle-class families who can’t afford an additional $15 a day toll when they are simply trying to go to their jobs. I’m talking about teachers, first responders, our firefighters, police, small business owners, bodega shop owners, theater workers, laborers and small business owners who are desperately afraid they will either lose their customers who may come in from places like New Jersey and outside Manhattan. They are also worried about the cost going up from their deliveries and having to be pushed out to their own customers.

“The MTA will be taking necessary action to reflect a pause in this program,” Hochul concluded. “The [legislative] leaders and I have a shared interest and responsibility to ensure that the MTA and its capital program is fully funded. … After many, many conversations, I am prepared to continue working with them from this moment on to continue to avoid any disruption in the MTA Capital Plan. It’s really simple to me. Leaders have to be willing to do what’s right, regardless of the political headwinds, and stand up for the voices that are not being heard. I put congestion pricing on pause because when it comes down to it, I’ll always stand on the side of hardworking New Yorkers.”

Meanwhile, the MTA signed a long-term $500 million contract with Transcorp to operate and maintain the infrastructure of the gantries that were supposed to bill drivers entering 60th Street and below. The priorities—or empty promises—put on hold include elevators and ramps for at least 18 subway stations, upgrading signals for the C and F lines in Brooklyn and Manhattan, phase two of the Second Avenue subway station and purchase of more than 250 electric buses and charging infrastructure.

“We’re going to fight like hell to make sure we don’t have to reduce service,” MTA Chairman Janno Lieber said after Hochul put the brakes on the congestion pricing plan.

Monday, June 24 is the next board meeting for the MTA at 2 Broadway, Manhattan.

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