Has Congestion Pricing’s Moment Finally Arrived in Albany?

Legislators realize they have to come up with money for transit — or else face the wrath of their constituents.

Albany is close than ever to passing congestion pricing. Photo: Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo
Albany is close than ever to passing congestion pricing. Photo: Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo

At long last, the congestion price may finally be right.

State legislators, facing pressure after years of inaction on transit issues, are closer to passing congestion pricing than they’ve ever been, according to multiple sources familiar with the ongoing negotiations.

Anything can happen, of course, but there is less opposition than ever among the Democrats who control both the Assembly and the Senate, according to legislators.

“There’s definitely a softening from those who opposed it before, and there’s a stronger affirmation from those who we suspected supported but hadn’t expressed strong support,” said Westchester rep Amy Paulin, a pricing supporter who chairs the assembly committee that oversees the MTA.

Congestion pricing is desperately needed — not only to raise revenue for the region’s beleaguered transit system, but also to rein in Manhattan’s out-of-control gridlock, supporters say. Last month, after a year of talking about it, the governor proposed establishing a toll zone in Manhattan below 61st Street with $1 billion annual funding goal, which could be bonded to borrow another $15 billion. The city’s transit system needs $40 billion, according to New York City Transit President Andy Byford.

Support is strongest among Senate Democrats, few if any of whom are outright opposed to the policy (see caveat below!). Advocates are increasingly confident that legislators will be able to work out those issues and include some form of congestion pricing in the budget proposals they will soon release. After that, the final details will be worked out in negotiations between Cuomo, Senator Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

“We’re increasingly optimistic that many legislators who have previously been oppositional see the need and are likely to come along,” said Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Nick Sifuentes, who has been meeting with legislators in Albany.

Still, the program’s passage is far from guaranteed. On Friday, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told attendees at a Crain’s New York breakfast on Friday that there aren’t currently enough votes to pass it. He waffled on the question of whether he would whip those votes, however.

“I did say to the members, I think it’s very important for us to … have a long-term funding mechanism for the MTA. I think the members get it. It’s about getting people comfortable with it,” said Heastie, a congestion pricing supporter. “You need to be able to… go back and tell your constituents why you did this.”

A decade ago, Mayor Bloomberg’s push for congestion pricing died in the Assembly after then-Speaker Sheldon Silver refused to bring it to a vote due to lack of support for the plan (and for Bloomberg!) in the Democrat-controlled chamber. Since then, the transit system experienced a precipitous decline, which only began to turn around with the hiring of Byford last year.

Today, with the MTA facing dire financial headwinds, there are only a few Democratic Assembly members absolutely opposed to congestion pricing. But many members are waiting for the details to be worked out before they vote in favor.

Meanwhile, MTA officials have also been in Albany, meeting with elected officials concerned that the money won’t be spent wisely and effectively. Legislators would be unlikely to support congestion pricing unless they can not only say to their constituents that the tolls will improve transit — but then also be confident that they actually will improve transit.

“It’s universally agreed that we need to come up with the money, but these meetings were about what should be done with the money,” Bronx Assembly Member Jeff Dinowitz told Streetsblog, adding that he stressed to MTA officials the need for more frequent bus service in outer-borough areas with limited or no subway access. “We need to know something more specific than, you know, you’ve got billion dollars. What’s the money going to go for?”

Dinowitz’s own position on congestion pricing typifies the shift among legislators on the issue. When Mayor Bloomberg proposed it in 2008 and 2009, Dinowitz was one of the leading opponents. In 2019, he’s taken a very different approach — in part, he said, because of pressure from the governor.

“There is a good amount of momentum for congestion pricing — not because people love it but, for no other reason, because the governor has said every other idea can’t happen,” he said. “My goal is that my constituents and the people of New York in the city in general have train service and bus service that works for them.”

Adding to that momentum: Mayor Bill de Blasio, who signed on to Cuomo’s pricing plan last week. De Blasio, like Dinowitz, Miller and other reticent outer-borough pols, refused to back congestion pricing for years on the grounds that it would unfairly burden his driving constituents. But with the transit system needing such urgent repairs, the mayor now says there’s no other choice.

“People see this as a moving train and people want to be on board,” Riders Alliance Policy and Communications Director Danny Pearlstein told Streetsblog.

At this point, legislators are working out details of the pricing scheme, including specific toll amounts, which will be spelled out in the budget proposals likely to be released by Wednesday. Both houses of the legislature are expected to stick to the governor’s funding goals, though ongoing negotiations over potential carveouts and exemptions could weaken the program’s effectiveness in terms of actually reducing congestion.

Getting suburban legislators on board also remains a hurdle, but not an intractable one. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Andrew Stewart-Cousins signed onto letters with Hudson Valley and Long Island senators demanding their constituents get a piece of the pricing pie, specifically in the form of funding for improvements to Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road.

“I’m sympathetic to the fact that it’s hard to run on old promises and old news,” Pearlstein said. “I anticipate seeing something [in the pricing package] that looks out for Long Island, just like I expect to see something that looks out for the areas north of the city.”

Senate Authorities and Corporations Committee Chair Leroy Comrie, a longtime congestion pricing opponent, has conceded the need to something — even as he threw shade on Cuomo recently on NY1.

“I understand the desire for people to be parochial about their communities,” he said in a statement provided to Josefa Velasquez of The City NY, “but as now a state official looking at the needs of the entire state and the impact of the congestion on the entire metropolitan area I under we have to figure something out.”

The united front of de Blasio and Cuomo gives legislators added assurance that they won’t be blamed if pricing goes wrong for whatever reason.

“We have an alliance of the liberal and progressive legislators from the city and the governor pushing the suburban representatives in the same direction,” Sifuentes said.

Still, congestion pricing alone won’t nearly cover the MTA’s financial needs, which likely exceed $60 billion in total. At the Crain’s Business breakfast on Friday, Heastie suggested raising the gas tax and also backed a pied-à-terre tax on second home worth over $5 million.

Cuomo and de Blasio are already backing a combination of congestion pricing, marijuana revenue, and a new sales tax on third-party internet sales that, combined, is expected to raise $22 billion. Past that, New York pols may be waiting for a more favorable climate in Washington — lest they opt for the unsavory task of raising taxes.

  • Joe R.

    Who do I contact to voice my concerns about bonding against new revenue sources? While I certainly support these new sources of revenue, the idea of spending all future revenue now, instead of as it comes in, should be dead on arrival. It’s not even like there’s much gain by doing this. With congestion pricing, for example, after 15 years we would be ahead just using the revenue as it comes in. 100% of the tax revenue should go towards MTA capital projects. By definition that means not using any of it to pay interest to bond holders. Also, if tax revenues fail to reach anticipated levels, will we just default on the bonds, or will we have to raid general revenues to pay back bond holders? These are all things which should be discussed.

    I also don’t see why the feds can’t kick in a significant portion of the $60 billion, like say 75%. Over 5 years that’s $9 billion per year, which is a rounding error in the federal budget. If NYC’s Congress people can’t get this funding, they’re failures and should be voted out of office.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The financial sector.

    The only hope is if those in later-born generations start talking up default as a morally defensible option. The realization that the bonds may not be paid (and with regard to anyone born after 1981 probably shouldn’t be) is probably why state and local debt is falling as a percent of GDP nationwide.

    https://larrylittlefield.files.wordpress.com/2019/03/state-localdebt.jpg

    Even as Generation Greed continues to sell off the future of the U.S. in general, or at least doesn’t improve things even when the economy is up, as I showed here.

    https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2019/03/10/americas-debts-2018-could-have-been-worse-but-2028-almost-certainly-will-be/

    What I see is the pols trying to negotiate to divert some percentage of the revenues away from transit in exchange for approval. And given that this is the state legislature, that percentage doesn’t have to be under 100 percent.

    As for bankruptcy, not just NYC. Not just government. As one can see in the recently released Federal Reserve Z1 data that is the subject of the above post.

  • Komanoff

    Dave —

    Solid reporting, as always, thanks.

    One cavil: You wrote, “Both houses are expected to stick to the governor’s funding goals, though ongoing negotiations over potential carve-outs and exemptions could weaken the program’s effectiveness in terms of actually reducing congestion.” Yes, we should all oppose carveouts, since they can unleash a cascade of special pleading that undermines the needed broad support. But because of the revenue floor, any carve-outs built into the final bill will presumably require offsetting toll firming or increases, which will then shore up the congestion reductions.

    In other words, a revenue target — say $1 billion a year (though I think it should be much higher) — requires a suite of tolls that will discourage a certain volume of auto trips. Rearranging the tolls with carve-outs isn’t going to dent the volume of trips that get priced off the roads.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Thinking further, the revenue goals might not necessarily match up with the congestion goals.

    We might like empty streets, but others might see them as a wasted resource that could have been used to encourage economic activity.

    So let’s say instead of a revenue goal, there was a congestion goal. If congestion fell low enough, as in a recession, the congestion pricing response would be to cut the fee. But to keep revenue up you’d increase the fee.

    And if you have a situation as it is now, based on a congestion goal a much higher fee may be warranted than is needed to achieve the revenue goal, because the initial change of behavior would be the most difficult (people have already bought the vehicles).

  • James Maxx

    This congestion fee will target motorists AGAIN with a tax for a service they barely/won’t use. Many of us New Yorkers (especially outer-borough residents, like myself) rely on our automobiles for daily commutes and use it for work. This includes taxi drivers, delivery people, couriers and commuters passing through Manhattan to get to other boroughs or New Jersey. Many of us use both forms of transportation out of necessity, especially living in the outer sections of the boroughs where trains don’t run and buses are unreliable and sometimes don’t run 24 hours.

    https://www.change.org/p/mayor-bill-de-blasio-say-no-to-congestion-pricing-and-robbing-motorists-for-the-mta

  • AMH

    Motorists should absolutely pay for the street space that they use.

  • AMH

    In a busy city like ours, the streets likely won’t be empty in the absence of cars.

  • John Smith

    They do, through taxes.

  • AMH

    Taxes don’t come close to paying for the costs imposed by drivers in crowded areas. I pay a lot of taxes but do not contribute to gridlock since I don’t drive, and no one gives me a refund.

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Proof That Congestion Pricing Supporters Do Exist in Queens

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Transportation Alternatives Queens Committee Chair Mike Heffron sends along this report from last night’s traffic commission hearing at York College in Jamaica, Queens. No huge surprise, Assemblymen Andrew Hevesi and Rory Lancman both came out against congestion pricing, citing not enough evidence it would work and demanding transit improvements without explaining where the money would […]