Corey to Mayor Pete: We Need Congestion Pricing Now

Congestion — with Corey Johnson and Pete Buttigieg (insets)
Congestion — with Corey Johnson and Pete Buttigieg (insets)

New president, same old calls for the federal government to get out of the way and let New York State implement congestion pricing already.

On Friday, Council Speaker Corey Johnson wrote to Secretary of Transportation nominee Pete Buttigieg to “implore” him to “immediately authorize the implementation of New York City’s landmark congestion pricing plan [which is] absolutely vital to the city’s short- and long-term recovery from COVID-19.”

Before President Biden took office on Wednesday, the prior administration had willfully failed to tell state officials which type of environmental review they would need to conduct regarding any impacts of congestion tolling — a full environmental impact statement, or a truncated environmental impact assessment. That failure to notify the state was the key hurdle to getting the revenue-raising plan in place by January, 2021 (which, as we all know, did not happen).

In his letter, Johnson said the Trump administration acted “nefariously” in delaying its decision on which kind of environmental review the state must undertake — a seemingly absurd hurdle that nonetheless barred any action. Congestion tolls, which were approved in 2019, would raise $1 billon per year, which would support $15 billion in borrowing. The MTA’s 2020-24 capital plan — the largest in its history — was built largely on anticipated revenue from the central business district tolling. As a result, much of that capital plan has been shelved.

Johnson is displeased. “Even before the coronavirus devastated our city, New York City’s subway system was facing a crisis of unreliable service and ridership decline,” his letter states. “The implementation of congestion pricing promised to help address this emergency by imposing a small toll on drivers entering Manhattan below 60th Street.” The billion dollars, he added, “would help to fund long-overdue capital upgrades for our century-old subway system, including modernizing signals and installing elevators.”

And in case incoming Secretary Buttigieg didn’t know, Johnson reiterated that congestion pricing has the broad support of a “diverse coalition of community stakeholders, businesses, labor unions, straphangers, traffic experts, transit advocates, and elected officials.”

That includes Mayor de Blasio, though Hizzoner has not spoken to President Biden or his team about congestion pricing yet, a spokesman said on Friday. On the Brian Lehrer show on Friday, the mayor had a great opportunity to bring up congestion pricing, but did not do so. When asked about former city DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg’s selection to be Buttigieg’s top deputy, de Blasio said all of the right things (except he left out congestion pricing:

Polly Trottenberg was a great commissioner of Transportation for this city and she was with me the entire run of this administration. And she did an amazing job and many accomplishments, but I keep coming back to Vision Zero. She was one of the key architects of Vision Zero. And I think she’s going to help make that a national vision, which we need. I think with her as the number two person at Department of Transportation, we’re going to see a lot more aid to mass transit, a lot more directed locally to the things that make an impact, a lot more support for bike lanes, a lot more support for Vision Zero efforts. And that’s going to be funding first and foremost, undoubtedly, but I also think the policies are going to change to support these kinds of efforts. And Polly agrees, you know, centrally, we all agree. We got to get away from the automobile more and more. I mean, that’s the central thrust here is we got to reorient our society away from cars and more and more towards mass transit and all other forms of transit. I think Polly’s going to make a huge impact. I’m very proud of her.

Pride, of course, goeth before the fall. And Amtrak-loving president and former DOT commissioner as a high official or not, the MTA is facing what Johnson called “a staggering $16-billion deficit through 2024.”

Certainly, the city and state will ask for more money, but Johnson focused his attention on congestion pricing, because it requires so little of the federal government.

“The implementation of congestion pricing has the capacity to generate significant urgently-needed revenue that will help prevent our public transit system from going down a death spiral of service cuts and fare hikes that will disproportionately harm the city’s working families,” he wrote. “With the positive environmental impacts that we can expect from reductions in traffic and the increased use of public transit due to congestion pricing, I believe an expedited environmental review is appropriate.”

A spokesman for U.S. DOT could not immediately comment on Johnson’s letter, but during his confirmation hearing on Thursday, Buttigieg seemed very supportive of many of Johnson’s arguments, as Streetsblog reported.

It is unclear if Gov. Cuomo has spoken to President Biden about congestion pricing. He had not brought it up in a call back in November, after the untainted election. And Cuomo never even complained to then-President Trump about his recalcitrance.

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