SIC TRANSIT GLORIA: Gov. Hochul Suddenly Raises Questions about Congestion Pricing at Debate

Sometimes you just need a montage with question marks. Graphic: Streetsblog Photoshop Desk
Sometimes you just need a montage with question marks. Graphic: Streetsblog Photoshop Desk

Here we groan again.

At a gubernatorial primary debate on Tuesday night, Gov. Hochul failed to stand up for congestion pricing, vaguely blamed the federal government for unspecified delays, and basically backpedaled away from the issue faster than Carmelo Anthony running from Nate Robinson.

When all the candidates were asked if congestion pricing should be delayed (past what has already been an excruciating slow implementation of a tolling scheme passed by then-Gov. Cuomo and the legislature in April 2019), Hochul didn’t say that New Yorkers have been waiting long enough or tout the reduced pollution from driving that tolls will cause or mention how the MTA’s capital plan depends on the billion dollars in revenue from the toll or even point out that New Yorkers support the idea and said they’d switch to mass transit to get into Manhattan.

Instead the incumbent vaguely gestured to supporting congestion pricing before unleashing a word salad of non-committal gobbledygook.

“I support congestion pricing,” said Hochul. “But we’ve been in negotiation with the federal government, who have a say on the next step and they have now put some hurdles in the way we have to overcome. So this is not going to happen in the next year under any circumstances. But now is not the right time.”

It wasn’t immediately clear if Hochul’s “hurdles” referred to existing questions that the U.S. Department of Transportation has previously raised (and which have already delayed the process) or whether there were new questions.

At the same debate, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams stood up for congestion pricing, saying that the toll should start “now,” specifically because of its climate benefit and the revenue it would raise (conservative Rep. Tom Suozzi tried to play it both ways, casting himself as in favor of congestion pricing, yet for some reason advocated for a one-year delay of the program that hasn’t even started yet).

But only one person on the stage was currently the governor, and Hochul’s comments left advocates frustrated with her throwing up her hands (as her disgraced predecessor did during the hated Trump administration) as the federal government continues to delay a pro-environment initiative whose goals are supposedly in line with the allegedly climate and transit-friendly US Department of Transportation under President “Amtrak” Joe Biden.

“Harmful, disappointing and cowardly response from Hochul when asked tonight about congestion pricing,” tweeted Ben Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas. “We have bad leaders who are afraid of leadership.”

“We need a positive vision for public transit from the governor,” said Riders Alliance Director of Policy and Communications Danny Pearlstein. “We’ve yet to hear from her what she envisions for the future of the public transit system that is the lifeblood of New York. We can’t afford infrequent service, unreliable service and inaccessible stations. And we want to hear from the governor about what her vision is for better public transit for all New Yorkers.

“Congestion pricing is the foundation for a lot of that work and we are beyond ready for it. It would have been very nice to hear that, and more from the governor about public transit,” Pearlstein added.

On Wednesday morning, Hochul’s office attempted to clean up the governor’s comments.

“Gov. Hochul remains committed to implementing congestion pricing efficiently and effectively for the benefit of all New Yorkers who deserve clean air and world-class transit, and while extensive questions from the federal government are causing delays, the governor directed her team to work closely with the federal government to provide responses as quickly as possible and keep the process moving forward,” spokesperson Hazel Crampton-Hays said in a statement.

MTA Chairman and CEO Janno Lieber said last month that the scheduled June release of the draft environmental assessment for congestion pricing was delayed because the agency was answering more than 400 technical questions from the Federal Highway Administration. But Lieber also claimed that the MTA would try to find ways to make up time and that this delay didn’t mean congestion pricing was definitely knocked off of its scheduled start in 2023.

The MTA is now illustrating the lengthy timeline to achieve congestion pricing. Graphic: MTA
The lengthy timeline to achieve congestion pricing The orange and orange-slashed bar between the two stars is going to be a little longer. Graphic: MTA

According to the high-level schedule that the MTA released after the federal government ordered the agency to conduct an environmental assessment for congestion pricing, the FHWA was supposed to issue its final decision on the assessment by the end of November or beginning of December. If the FHWA issues a finding of no significant impact, the MTA has said it would take slightly under a year to install and turn on its tolling equipment in Manhattan below 60th Street and at bridge and tunnel entry points to local streets.

That would mean that congestion pricing, which the MTA needs very badly reiterated (as it reiterated on Wednesday amid confusion over Hochul’s comments), could start in late 2023.

“The MTA is fully committed to congestion pricing, is aggressively working through the Federal process and appreciates the Governor’s support,” said Chief of External Relations John McCarthy. “We have been vocal about the importance of this program, because in addition to reducing traffic and providing significant environmental benefits, congestion pricing is essential for the funding of major capital initiatives like accessible subway stations, the Second Avenue Subway and zero-emission buses.”

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