Hochul stops congestion pricing in stunning 11-hour shift

Governor. New York’s Kathy Hochul announced Wednesday that she was suspending the long-awaited toll plan, known as a congestion charge, just weeks before it takes effect.

“After careful consideration, I have made the difficult decision that implementing the planned congestion pricing system risks causing too many unintended consequences,” Ms. Hochul said, adding: “I have ordered the MTA to suspend the program indefinitely. »

The move angered environmentalists, transit advocates and economists, with some accusing the governor of abandoning a plan that had been in the works for decades for political reasons during a critical election year.

The decision, Madam. Hochul acknowledged that this was not an easy task, but nonetheless crucial in light of the coronavirus pandemic’s lingering effects on working families and New York City’s economy.

The congestion pricing plan, the first of its kind in the country, was due to start on June 30. Drivers using the E-ZPass reportedly paid up to $15 to enter Manhattan south of 60th Street.

The governor said she was concerned that introducing a toll to enter the borough would “create another barrier to our economic recovery.”

“Let’s be real: A $15 fee may not seem like much to someone who can afford it, but it can break the budget of a hard-working middle-class household,” Ms. Hochul said.

In the days leading up to her announcement, the governor briefed the White House and the top House Democrat, Hakeem Jeffries, on her plans, according to two people familiar with the conversations.

They disputed reports that Mr. Jeffries had directed Ms. Hochul to delay the project, saying he had remained neutral on the issue.

“As immediate implementation of congestion pricing is reconsidered, Leader Jeffries supports a temporary pause of limited duration to better understand the financial impact on working class New Yorkers,” said Andy Eichar, spokesperson for Mr. Jeffries.

The governor’s last-minute concerns began circulating in Albany Tuesday evening and quickly sent shockwaves through the New York State Capitol Wednesday morning, the penultimate day of the legislative session.

Few business owners could say they like congestion pricing and the prospect of taxing voters. But the proposal has been championed by economists and environmentalists as the solution not only to the financial problems of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state agency that runs New York’s subways and buses, but also to the infamous traffic jam of the city.

The program was also challenged in court by eight separate lawsuits, with plaintiffs including the Trucking Association of New York and the governor. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey.

Mr. Murphy’s case in particular, which is being argued in federal district court in Newark, has been seen as the most serious challenge to congestion pricing. State officials are calling for a more comprehensive environmental review of the program.

But in New York, most Democrats reluctantly accepted the plan after decades of debate, hearings, study and planning — none more publicly than Ms. Hochul, who defended it as a necessary step toward rebuilding New York’s economy.

Just two weeks ago, the governor told attendees at the World Economic Summit in Ireland that implementing a congestion charge was essential to “making cities more liveable”.

Many key players in New York politics, from Albany to New York, have expressed dismay at this reversal.

“I’m very upset that all of a sudden, out of the blue, this comes up,” State Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, said Wednesday, adding: “If we stop congestion pricing now, we We’ll never get there.” “

Kate Slevin of the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit urban research and advocacy group that has championed the toll program, called the decision “a complete betrayal of New Yorkers and our climate.”

Partnership for New York City President Kathryn Wylde said the governor’s decision was disappointing and she hoped the pause would only be temporary.

Still, an undercurrent of support for Ms. Hochul’s decision was also evident among attendees, particularly those representing swing districts.

“Many see this as good news,” said James Skoufis, a Democrat who represents Orange County in the state Senate, adding that despite the plan’s approval five years earlier, opposition had grown within the Legislative Assembly. “Some of them are outspoken, some of them are more discreet, but they are widespread. »

Shortly after Ms. Hochul’s announcement, U.S. Rep. Pat Ryan, a Democrat facing a tough re-election race in New York’s northern suburbs, issued a statement taking partial credit for having caused the plan to fail.

“Since day one, I have fought alongside countless Hudson Valley families against this unfair, misinformed and unacceptable congestion pricing plan,” Ryan said. “Today I am proud to say we have ended congestion pricing.”

Indeed, the plan has been largely unpopular in suburban areas of the Hudson Valley and Long Island, where Democrats are desperate to make gains this cycle.

A Siena poll in April found that 72 percent of New York City suburbs opposed congestion pricing. Statewide, the number is lower, but still a majority — including 54 percent Democrats.

Transit experts say such opposition is common among communities acclimating to tolling plans, but it doesn’t always last.

“We know from the experiences of other cities that have implemented congestion pricing that public support is at its lowest just before implementation,” said Nicholas Klein, assistant professor of urban planning. and regional at Cornell University. “That’s when the public, media and politicians panic. But we always find that the sky is not falling on our heads.”

In her speech, Ms. Hochul highlighted her commitment to public transit and her desire to ensure the transit authority has the funding it needs to complete long-awaited capital projects. But she said the city’s outlook has changed since the plan was approved in 2019.

“Employees were in the office five days a week, crime was at an all-time high and tourism was at an all-time high,” she said. “Circumstances have changed and we must respond to the facts on the ground. »

To stop implementation of the plan, Ms. Hochul only needs approval from the authority’s board of directors, which she controls. But without the $1 billion a year earmarked for the city’s buses and subways, the transit system could quickly slide into crisis.

MS. Hochul could fill that gap, at least temporarily, with money from state reserves. But she would also seek a more sustainable source of revenue, in the form of a tax on municipal businesses, which would require approval from the state Legislature.

In New York, Mayor Eric Adams supported Ms. Hochul’s gesture. “I think if she considers analyzing other ways of doing it and how to do it properly, I’m all for it,” Mr. Adams said Wednesday at an unrelated news conference. Staten Island.

Mr. Adams, who is not a strong supporter of congestion pricing, said he was concerned that charging vehicles to enter Lower Manhattan would be an undue burden on “ordinary New Yorkers” and could affect the city’s economic recovery from the pandemic.

“We have to get this right,” the mayor said, noting that he had communicated with the governor in recent days. “This is a major change in our city and it needs to be done right.”

The report was provided by Nicolas Fandos, Jeffery C. Mays And Claire Fahy.

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