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Andrew Cohen

Cuomo: Congestion Pricing Isn’t Important Enough To Talk About With President-Elect Biden

Will Joe Biden make it rain for Gov. Cuomo? Well, only if the governor asks.

Gov. Cuomo did not bring up congestion pricing with President-elect Biden in a call the other day — and explained the oversight the way a father of 20 kids might forget one or two.

"We have a lot of DOT issues," Cuomo told Streetsblog on Monday after we asked whether he brought up the long-stalled tolling scheme with "Amtrak" Joe during a governors' call with the future POTUS this weekend. "MTA congestion pricing plan is one of a long list of issues with [U.S.] DOT. The Department of Transportation hasn’t approved the rebuilding of the Hudson tunnels, the Department of Transportation hasn’t approved the Laguardia Airport AirTrain, the Department of Transportation hasn’t funded the Second Avenue Subway."

When Streetsblog followed up and asked where congestion pricing was on that list of Cuomo's other favorite children, he replied, "They're all important."

Yes, all important, but congestion pricing, which was created by Cuomo and the state legislature in early 2019, has been frozen ever since by regulators at the Federal Highway Administration, who have not told state officials which type of environmental review the first-in-the-nation congestion tolls require. (Or the feds could waive the environmental review on the grounds that a toll to reduce congestion and pollution automatically has a positive environmental impact.)

As a result of the delay — which is inexplicable, given that the federal government need only tell the state which kind of review to perform — ensured that congestion pricing missed its original target start date of January, 2021. The $1 billion in annual toll revenue was already budgeted in the MTA's crucial 2020-2024 capital budget.

Transportation experts have said that congestion pricing could begin towards the tail end of 2021, but that everything would have to be in its right place for the program to finally become a reality. Part of what would have to go right was that Gov. Cuomo would champion congestion pricing as a key piece to the MTA's revival and improvement for a post-COVID New York City. Instead, like Mayor de Blasio, the governor is still suggesting that there's plenty of time to deal with congestion pricing ... eventually.

One transit advocate panned the governor's lack of focus on congestion pricing, suggesting that the governor, who an aide once compared to Tom Brady, is more like the strikeout-prone Jay Bruce.

"This is a big whiff by the governor," said TransitCenter Communications Director Ben Fried. "Congestion pricing is his initiative, New Yorkers need him to seal the deal. It’s much more consequential to NYC’s transit system and economy than the LGA AirTrain."

The governor used a weekend press conference to push for the AirTrain, which would do nothing for subway and bus riders, but would raise his standing in the world of Thomas Friedman-level pundits who think shiny objects are mass transit.

Earlier this year, Cuomo said that he didn't bring up congestion pricing with President Trump because the toll that's supposed to fund over a quarter of the MTA's $51 billion capital plan was not a "jobs program."

Other advocates, in a more festive holiday moods, were more willing to forgive the guv, suggesting that allowing the MTA to dip into capital funds to cover the agency's yawning operating deficit is proof of Cuomo's commitment to getting the idea over the finish line.

"The governor is right that there are other outstanding issues and that congestion pricing is important," said Riders Alliance Communications Director Danny Pearlstein. "Earlier this year, he and the legislature liberalized the terms of the program so that it can fund MTA operations as well as capital upgrades. That's a realization that the MTA needs new revenue more than ever."

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