Hochul Hints Congestion Pricing on a Slower Drive to Finish Line
MTA officials say that the federal government is asking too many questions; Gov. Kathy Hochul says maybe it’s not the right time. What is the final destination for the long-talked about plan to toll drivers coming into Manhattan’s center?
A day after Gov. Kathy Hochul said “now is not the right time” for congestion pricing, she reaffirmed her support for implementing the long-delayed plan to toll vehicles entering Manhattan — eventually.
Hochul scrambled to emphasize Wednesday that she stands behind a program designed to fund mass transit upgrades and reduce traffic after saying at a Democratic gubernatorial debate the night before that it is “not going to happen over the next year under any circumstances.”
MTA officials, who previously acknowledged a potential two-year delay until 2023 and last month blamed federal nitpicking for a slowdown, said they are “fully committed” to congestion and are “aggressively working” through the process.
“While extensive questions from the federal government are causing delays, the governor directed her team to work closely with the federal government to provide responses as quickly as possible and keep the process moving forward,” Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for Hochul, said Wednesday.
The state legislature approved congestion pricing in 2019 — after a 2008 push by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg failed in Albany — but the rollout has been slowed repeatedly, with Hochul and her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, pinning the problems on Washington.
The vehicle-tolling plan is being counted on by the MTA to help fund a significant chunk of the agency’s ambitious 2020-2024 Capital Program to maintain and expand the sprawling transit system.
But the delays are “unacceptable,” said Hayley Richardson of TransitCenter, a research and advocacy organization.
“It’s become increasingly clear to us that the delay has to do with Governor Hochul’s concerns about being elected,” Richardson said. “There’s a lot of sentiments out there that this is policial suicide, and that is incorrect.
“Congestion pricing is unpopular when you look at it before implementation,” she added. “When it is implemented, things turn dramatically around.”
A Spectrum News NY1/Siena College poll published Tuesday found that 42% of those surveyed said they would drive to Manhattan less once congestion pricing starts, with 64% opting for mass transit instead.
Studies have shown that congestion pricing is fairly popular in Europe and Asia when viewed as a way to cut traffic and reduce pollution.
A Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) spokesperson said agency officials are committed to arriving at “a timely and informed” determination on the project.
“FHWA is meeting weekly with the MTA to work through comments provided on the Draft Environmental Assessment and is making its staff available to MTA as needed as part of this important effort to ensure that necessary traffic, air quality and other analyses are conducted as required to inform FHWA’s consideration of the tolling program,” the spokesperson said.
But the continued delays have come with a cost for riders who expect subway, bus and commuter rail upgrades, MTA board members and transit advocates said.
Getting People Into Manhattan
At the debate, Hochul said officials are focused on encouraging workers to come back to the city, but acknowledged “we’re not going to see many people come back five days a week” post-pandemic.
“That’s unfortunate,” John Samuelsen, international president of Transport Workers Union and an MTA board member, told THE CITY. “This is the moment in time when every incentive to drive people back into the city and the subway needs to be undertaken — every incentive — because congestion pricing disincentivizes car traffic into Manhattan.”
The delays in implementing congestion pricing come as traffic in the city is back at pre-pandemic levels, but as MTA data shows subway and bus ridership remains at around 60% of what it was prior to the start of the COVID crisis.
“The need for frequent and reliable public transit should not get lost,” said Danny Pearlstein, policy director for Riders Alliance, an advocacy organization. “The subway needing fixing is a thread we cannot afford to lose.”
Prior to the pandemic, 700,000 vehicles entered Manhattan’s “central business district” daily, according to the MTA, whose average weekday subway ridership was 5.4 million in 2019.
Future Budgets Relying on Toll
The MTA has said it plans to have congestion pricing bankroll about $15 billion of its $51 billion five-year capital plan, which would help pay for new subway cars and buses, station upgrades, accessibility improvements at dozens of stations and the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway.
Depending on the time of day, toll rates would range from $9 to $23 for E-Z Pass users to enter Manhattan south of 60th Street, according to the MTA.
“It would be terrible if it were delayed another year because there are tons of projects we are counting on,” Andrew Albert, an MTA board member, told THE CITY. “Without that money, we’re in some trouble.”
Congestion pricing has long been hailed as an essential source of funding for MTA construction and upgrades.
“The whole idea that we have dedicated revenues that are supposed to come from drivers to fund the MTA, we’re sort of eroding that,” Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative nonprofit think tank, told THE CITY. (Gelinas is a member of THE CITY’s editorial advisory board)
In the latest instance, Hochul and MTA officials have pointed to the federal government’s lengthy approval process for knocking the plan off schedule, citing 425 comments on the project’s environmental assessment.
“It is having an effect on the schedule and we’re working to minimize it,” Janno Lieber, MTA Chairperson and CEO, said at the transit agency’s board meeting last month.
TransitCenter’s Richardson cited plans to expand a similar program in London, which in 2003 introduced a daily congestion charge as a way of cutting into the number of vehicles on the road. Stockholm also uses congestion pricing.
“They like less traffic, they like buses that are moving, they like cleaner air,” she said. “They are willing to pay for those kinds of benefits.”
In December, however, London officials announced that they were cutting back on congestion pricing hours to help the nightlife and hospitality sectors recover from the pandemic.
Even with the continued delays in New York, transit watchdogs said they expect congestion pricing will become a reality after years of seeing the can kicked down the road.
“The road is bumpy,” Pearlstein said. “But the can is moving.”