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Congestion Pricing

Federal Judge Sets Aside a Key Congestion Pricing Lawsuit

Gov. Hochul's rationale for killing congestion pricing took another blow on Thursday as a federal judge dismissed one of the major lawsuits against it.

The Streetsblog Photoshop Desk|

Three losers: (from left) Gov. Hochul, Staten Island Borough President Vito Fossella and Teachers Union President Michael Mulgrew.

Case dismissed!

Gov. Hochul's rationale for killing congestion pricing took another blow on Thursday as a federal judge issued a definitive and sometimes scathing ruling against some of the supposed "working class" New Yorkers whom Hochul claimed to be championing.

At issue in the case brought by several residents of Lower East Side as well as the teachers union, three Staten Island Council members and the Staten Island Borough President was not whether congestion pricing is good policy, but whether the MTA and its federal partners violated the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires that officials take a "hard look" at possible impacts.

"According to Plaintiffs," wrote U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Liman, "the NEPA review process here — which spanned four years and yielded an administrative record of more than 45,000 pages — did not amount to a 'hard look' at the environmental implications of congestion pricing. In light of Defendants’ meticulous analysis, the Court cannot agree."

Leaning heavily on congestion pricing's lengthy history as a theory by the economist William Vickrey, as well as an actual policy in cities such as Stockholm an London, the tone of Liman's ruling suggested little patience for the prevailing objection to congestion pricing as a burden on the working class or that driving into the most congested part of the city should be free because it has always been so, as if life in New York must always be congested and polluted simply because some people want it that way.

Indeed, Liman's ruling specifically pointed out that one of the main goals of congestion pricing was "to improve transit services for low-income residents, who overwhelmingly rely on public transportation."

And the judge, who was a Trump appointee to the district court, concurred with the argument that the "ongoing failures with New York City’s subway infrastructure continue to have a deleterious impact on the health, safety, and livelihood of commuters, tourists, resident New Yorkers, as well as ... the economy of the state of New York, such that a long-term and sustainable solution is necessary in order to ensure stable and reliable funding to repair and revitalize this significantly important mass transit asset.”

Liman's 113-page opinion dealt mostly with jurisdictional claims and whether plaintiffs had sued the right people or whether they had standing in the first place. But it also included a clear lack of patience for most of the plaintiffs' arguments, such as the contention that congestion pricing was such a significant change that its magnitude alone required a formal environmental impact statement instead of the supposedly less-rigorous environmental assessment,

"Plaintiffs contend that the size and importance of New York City, particularly the
CBD, renders congestion pricing inherently significant," Liman wrote. "But Plaintiffs’ New York City exceptionalism focuses on the wrong facet: it is the scale of environmental impacts, not the scale of the project, that must be significant. ... Were the law otherwise, any project involving Manhattan would require an EIS, no matter how negligible its environmental impact."

And just because New York is first in the United States to adopt a cordon-type toll also does not require an EIS, Liman added.

"The environmental consequences of congestion pricing are ultimately familiar," he wrote. "All tolls affect traffic patterns — diverting cars and trucks while incentivizing the use of public transit — and thus can alter air quality and noise in the surrounding communities. Indeed, the Federal Highway Administration's reliance on well-established modeling tools to analyze congestion pricing’s consequences confirms that its effects are typical for transportation projects. Congestion pricing therefore did not pose the kind of novel environmental threat that inherently demands further study in an EIS."

Plaintiffs even objected to the notion that the MTA and its federal partners offered mitigations to some of the environmental impacts expected in several localized areas as a result of congestion pricing. Liman set that aside, pointing out that agencies "may use those measures as a mechanism to reduce environmental impacts below the level of significance that would require an EIS. ... Plaintiffs’ categorical challenge to [an EA with mitigations] is therefore untenable."

That conclusion was likely reached because of the hypocritical nature of the plaintiffs' argument that congestion pricing would add a burden of pollution on several environmental justice communities — a fact that the plaintiffs came to know because of the very environmental assessment they abhor.

Given the findings of that environmental document, the MTA and its federal partners did indeed "recognize an adverse effect from congestion pricing and prompted the project sponsors to commit to a $155-million investment in the mitigation measures. Simply put," Liman added, "the NEPA process worked precisely as it should."

Liman also took issue with the plaintiff's contention that the MTA did not consider alternatives to congestion pricing's goal of not only raising $15 billion for capital projects, but also reducing traffic by close to 20 percent, such as with carpool lanes, additional taxi stands or a true crackdown on parking placards. Liman argued that such "alternatives’ shortcomings were straightforward" with "flaws" that are "self-evident."

Liman even took pains to set aside the claim of two Battery Park City residents that their neighborhood would be inundated with traffic, agreeing with the MTA's finding that "Plaintiffs’ traffic concerns are unfounded."

"If the busiest intersections along the exempted West Side Highway would not be burdened by worse traffic under congestion pricing, then surely the tolled streets of Battery Park City would not either."

The MTA hailed Liman's ruling as a slam dunk — and put in a slight dig at Hochul's decision to delay congestion pricing.

"We appreciate the thorough evaluation of the environmental review by Hon. Judge Lewis Liman, and his acknowledgment of the comprehensive analyses and public process that led to the federal government's Finding of No Significant Impact for the Central Business District Tolling program," said MTA General Counsel Paige Graves. "We stand ready to relieve congestion and improve transit service for millions of riders."

Gov. Hochul's press office did not put out a statement after Liman's ruling was released nor did it react to the MTA's assertion that it would be relieving congestion and improving transit service starting on June 30 but for the governor's action in delaying congestion pricing.

As such, advocates saw the ruling as reason enough to get back on schedule.

"Gov. Hochul should take Judge Liman's decision as her opportunity to revive congestion pricing," said Riders Alliance Executive Director Betsy Plum. "Now that a federal court has upheld the MTA's exhaustive environmental review, our governor should feel comfortable with moving forward and delivering the program's benefits."

The case brought against congestion pricing by the state of New Jersey remains pending, though it makes many of the same arguments. That ruling is expected shortly.

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