How Governor Hochul decided to eliminate congestion pricing in New York

In recent months, Gov. Kathy Hochul has privately discussed her concerns about the advancement of congestion pricing with business leaders, political advisers and, she says, many ordinary New Yorkers in restaurants.

But she never shared them with the group that would be most affected by the program: the general public, who had every reason to believe that the new toll structure would be in place in Manhattan later this month.

The decision to abandon a plan that was decades in the making came from real estate executives, transit advocates and other stakeholders. The governor said she was reluctant to discourage people from driving to New York while the economic recovery was still fragile; Critics have called it an election year ploy to help Democrats in suburban districts where congestion pricing is particularly unpopular.

MS. Hochul’s announcement was particularly shocking given his past support for the plan. Indeed, as recently as this year, the governor emphasized the need to remove vehicles from the road – a dissonance that fueled a sense of duplicity and a sense of betrayal among those who considered her an ally.

On Friday, Jon Orcutt, a longtime proponent of congestion pricing and a consultant for Reinvent Albany, described Ms. Hochul’s about-face as “a fundamental sense of betrayal, like the bottom of the inner core.”

“It would be one thing if she inherited the thing and said, ‘This is not my priority,'” he added. “But we arrived, not at the 11th hour, but 10 seconds before midnight.”

The effects of Mrs. Hochul’s decision was immediate. New York City was left without a plan to address the crippling gridlock that has long choked its streets and polluted its air.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state agency that would have received funding from the congestion pricing program, suddenly had a $15 billion hole in its budget, likely forcing it to shelve construction projects. long-planned investments, such as improved signals, to focus on the simplest operational needs. .

And in a stinging rebuke to the governor, the state Legislature left Albany for the year without heeding his call to set up some sort of temporary funding structure for the transportation authority.

On Friday, Ms. Hochul again expressed her concerns about the city’s recovery from the pandemic. She told reporters that even more than any single data point or study, her certainty came from interactions with business owners and restaurant patrons who gave her “a real pulse on what people think.” New Yorker “.

“I encourage you to go to the next dinner with me, I’ll probably be there in the morning,” she said. “Sit with me and watch people come and thank me.”

Polls bear out his observations: A Siena College survey in April found that New York City residents opposed congestion pricing, 64 percent to 33 percent, with suburban respondents most opposed. hating it even more.

But public opinion has improved following the implementation of congestion charges in other cities. And even this attempt to emphasize his ties to ordinary New Yorkers seemed rooted in a bygone city where diners still ruled, fueling the impression that his roots in Western New York had shaped a political vision rooted in the past.

Indeed, the governor’s search for empathy with motorists has some history. Twenty-six years ago, as a city councilor in the Buffalo suburb of Hamburg, Ms. Hochul gained notoriety for her opposition to commuter tolls on the New York State Turnpike.

“Even though they say walking a mile in my shoes creates empathy, I hope that in this case driving a mile in my minivan will create action,” she wrote in an article opinion published in 1998 in The Buffalo News.

As governor, Ms. Hochul’s stance toward motorists seemed more nuanced. Those close to him, as well as officials briefed in advance on his congestion pricing plans, insisted in interviews that the governor believed in the mission of reducing congestion, improving the quality of air and generate billions for the city’s public transportation system.

In December, for example, Ms. Hochul headlined a rally to defend the toll program, telling supporters she was proud of the transformative policy.

“From time to time, leaders are called to envision a better future, to be bold in implementation and implementation, and not to be intimidated by opposition,” he said. she sang, adding, “That’s when we show leadership.” »

But by then, some of her allies said she was already concerned that the program’s timing was poorly timed and could harm New York City’s economic recovery. His main concern was data showing that many New Yorkers still had not returned to municipal offices, they said.

For a while, it looked like Ms. Hochul might not need to intervene to stop congestion pricing: There are currently eight lawsuits seeking to delay its implementation. But as April turned to May, and then May to June, that possibility lessened.

As Ms. Hochul flew to Europe last month on a trip aimed at cementing her role as a climate leader. She had begun to avoid the term “congestion toll.”

At a conference for climate leaders in Italy, Ms. Hochul made an unprecedented decision to deviate from her prepared remarks. She omitted a section in which she was to explicitly tout New York’s national congestion pricing plan.

MS. Hochul has consistently referred to the need to take cars off the roads and improve public transportation, but she argued that these improvements cannot come at the expense of those struggling to pay their bills. She echoed that argument Wednesday, when she announced her decision to delay the program.

State Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs defended Ms. Hochul, saying congestion pricing was the “right policy” but the “wrong time.” As for why the governor waited so long to announce his reservations, Mr. Jacobs noted: “This was supposed to go into effect on June 30, right? I can’t wait any longer.

Yet the timing of Ms. Hochul’s decision, five months before a crucial general election and just after a visit to the White House, also raised suspicions that political concerns had trumped policy goals.

Hochul’s teams and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, who is leading the effort to win back the House for Democrats, vehemently denied any political collusion ahead of the decision. But it’s no secret that Ms. Hochul’s sluggish performance at the top of the ticket in the 2022 midterm elections coincided with the party losing four House seats, costing it control of the chamber and earned the governor a mortifying reprimand from Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House at the time.

Since that election, Ms. Hochul has focused on the issues that Republicans have arrayed against her, chief among them crime and affordability, which consistently rank among New Yorkers’ top concerns.

These same polls show that congestion pricing is unpopular with a majority of voters in both parties.

It’s difficult to estimate the precise costs of opting out of the tolling program, which would have charged E-ZPass drivers up to $15 to travel to Manhattan’s central business district. The city’s Independent Budget Office called the time, money and other resources already spent preparing for its implementation “unquantifiable.”

Some of the more defined costs include the $427 million the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has already allocated for physical infrastructure, including the cameras now installed above Manhattan streets.

The decision to suspend the program also left the authority, which oversees the city’s subways, buses, bridges, tunnels and two commuter railroads, without the $1 billion in annual toll revenue from congestion pricing, which was to finance $15 billion for investment projects. These include the expansion of the Second Avenue subway, new subway cars and new subway elevators to make the system accessible to people in wheelchairs.

There are also the legal costs of defending the MTA against eight lawsuits filed by plaintiffs ranging from truck drivers to the governor of New Jersey.

The financial effects of removing congestion pricing also include the environmental costs that communities will bear due to the continued presence of combustion engine blockages, as well as the economic damage caused by transport delays: the Independent Office of Budget estimates that rush-hour subway blockages cost riders up to $390 million a year.

MS. Hochul’s decision will certainly please motorists, who are far outnumbered by transit commuters to Manhattan and are generally wealthier than those who take the subway or bus. It also pleased about two dozen attendees, many from Queens and Long Island, who issued statements of support.

From a political standpoint, it may not be the worst thing, said Stu Loeser, who was Michael R. Bloomberg’s chief spokesman when he tried as mayor to make adopted a congestion pricing plan 17 years ago.

“Despite all the good work that has been done since then in the area of ​​congestion pricing, a harsh reality has not changed: it is simply very unpopular among people who live in Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Rockland, Orange, Putnam, Dutchess, Orange and Ulster. And drive into town several times a year or more,” he said.

“These are the same New York counties whose voters could decide whether the House of Representatives retains its slim MAGA majority.”

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