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Congestion Pricing

‘Irresponsible, Destructive’: Hochul’s Congestion Pricing Flip Harms Working New Yorkers, Ritchie Torres Says

"The delay of congestion pricing is not only bad morals and bad economics, it's bad politics," Torres told Streetsblog.

Rep. Ritchie Torres says Gov. Hochul has boxed herself in.

Since Gov. Hochul's June 6 announcement that she had killed congestion pricing, Streetsblog reporters have posted more than 30 stories about the crisis from New York and Albany. But that level of intensity also requires support from our readers. Click here if you can help fund more reporting.

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Gov. Hochul's move to "indefinitely pause" congestion pricing will have "destructive'" consequences for transit riders and low income New Yorkers of color especially, U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres told Streetsblog on Friday.

The Bronx congressman unloaded on Hochul's abandonment of the tolls — saying that the "irresponsible" decision betrays the public trust, hurts New York's standing with federal regulators and bondholders and ultimately saddles working people with higher fares and worse service.

Torres's statements directly contradict Hochul's claim that she called of the toll's June 30 launch date for the sake of "working people."

"Perpetuating the disinvestment from public transit will have a disproportionately destructive impact on the lowest income communities of color, who disproportionately depend on public transit for their livelihood," Torres said of the delay's impact on his constituents.

He called Hochul's insistence Thursday that the MTA's capital program won't be "jeopardized" but rather re-prioritized "disingenuous," slamming the governor for potentially putting the fate of the MTA in the hands of Donald Trump.

Federal officials have withheld final approvals for the toll in response to Hochul's announcement, but did reveal on Friday that congestion pricing would have vast benefits. Nonetheless, the delay could leave a future Trump administration with the power to decide the tolling program's fate.

"The governor is putting the fate of congestion pricing at the mercy of the presidential election," Torres warned. "Why on earth would we put the fate of congestion pricing and public transit in the hands of Donald Trump, whose sole purpose in life is to exact revenge on all his enemies, which includes the state of New York?"

Read the conversation below. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Ritchie Torres: The governor's pause on congestion pricing may be as erratic and chaotic, as arbitrary and abrupt, a decision as any I have seen in my 20 years of politics. Creating a massive $15 billion hole in the MTA's capital plan at the end of the legislative session without a plan B — without so much as consulting anyone, including the MTA, is irresponsible in the extreme. The state of New York is supposed to be a responsible steward of our public institutions, public transit foremost among them. When it comes to the MTA, the state of New York is betraying the public trust. I see public transit as an issue of racial equity and racial justice. Perpetuating the disinvestment from public transit will have a disproportionately destructive impact on the lowest income communities of color, who disproportionately depend on public transit for their livelihood. The Bronx is the essential borough. It is the home of the essential workforce, which both needs and wants a modern system of public transit. During the global pandemic, we saw essential workers in places like the Bronx, many of them working minimum wage, put their lives at risk during the peak of the pandemic so that the rest of the city and state could safely shelter in place. As far as I'm concerned we owe the essential workers who make our city and state work to make public transit work for them.

I'll make a few more points. The governor's pause will have implications far beyond congestion pricing. It undermines New York's credibility with federal regulators, who went through a multi-year process of studies and approvals all to have it all upended in the 11th hour with no other reason but politics. Do you not think that will no impact on other projects that depend on cooperation of the federal government, particularly U.S. DOT? It undermines New York's credibility with the bond markets, raising the cost of debt and causing the public to pay more for less. As you saw, the MTA's chief financial officer announced that both Moody's and S&P have said the pause of congestion pricing was a "credit negative" for the MTA. More dollars spent on debt means fewer dollars spent on the public transit system itself.

There is a middle ground here. The state of New York could sign the VPPP while pausing congestion pricing. By refusing to sign the VPPP, the governor is putting the fate of congestion pricing at the mercy of the presidential election. What if Trump wins the presidency? And why on earth would we put the fate of congestion pricing and public transit in the hands of Donald Trump, whose sole purpose in life is to exact revenge on all his enemies, which includes the state of New York?

For me, the delay of congestion pricing is not only bad morals and bad economics, it's bad politics. One side sees the pause as a betrayal, the other side sees it as political expediency. It's a lose-lose. And by announcing the delay so haphazardly and so sloppily, the issue of congestion pricing could take on more importance, not less, in the upcoming Congressional elections. What's to prevent the Republicans from saying, 'Vote for us and we will kill congestion pricing for good'?

The issue is front and center of the public mind because of all the media coverage. It's akin to the Streisand effect. It's producing the opposite of what you intended politically.

Streetsblog: You represent the Bronx, an area that opponents keep saying will be hurt by congestion pricing, but you've been a pretty steadfast supporter. Do these opponents misunderstand the program and analysis?

Torres: There's a class of people who only have an interest in what is best for the Bronx in the context of opposing congestion pricing. People should see it for what it is. 

As part of congestion pricing, I negotiated over $150 million worth of community benefits for the Bronx aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution and asthma rates, and all of those dollars are now a question mark because of the cloud of uncertainty that has been cast over congestion pricing.

Eighty percent of commuters who go into Manhattan are commuting by public transit. Those numbers are likely higher for the Bronx. In fact, remember during Covid, when parts of Manhattan were a ghost town and no one was using the subways, the subways in the Bronx were always active. The Bronx utilization of the public transit system was high even during Covid, because we are the essential borough. We are the borough of the essential workers who depend on public transit.

Streetsblog: Have you had conversations with other members of Congress or people in the federal government about the importance of this program moving forward? 

Torres: Look, opinions might vary about the substance, but I'm aware of no one who approves of the manner in which the governor chose to delay congestion pricing. I held an event with MTA Chair Janno Lieber a few days before the announcement. And for me Janno Lieber is one of the finest public servants of this generation. We are fortunate to have him. I asked him, 'How's everything going with congestion pricing?' and he said, 'smoothly.' And so it's clear to me that the abrupt announcement of the pause was an ambush. An exceptional public servant like Chair Lieber deserves far more respect than he has been shown.

Streetsblog: Gov. Hochul claimed yesterday that capital program projects are not "jeopardized," and that while they "will be re-prioritized," "they will continue." 

"Prioritization" is a code word for shrinking capital investment in public transit. It is disingenuous to demolish the foundation for $15 billion worth of capital investments in public transit and claim that has no impact on riders.

Streetsblog: What do you see as the next steps here, in trying to get these tolls to launch as soon as possible?

Public pressure and litigation. Congestion pricing is too big to fail. It is so essential to the modernization of the MTA that it should transcend politics. If we're going to make core decisions based on electoral politics, then maybe we should cancel property taxes. Maybe we should cancel income taxes, you know, that would make people feel good in the upcoming elections. It's like, where do you draw the line? At what point do we decide to govern responsibly?

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