Mondays 153: (De)congestion Pricing with Ben Kabak

This week on Mondays at The Overhead Wire we go into depth on the past week in New York City and Governor Kathy Hochul’s attempt to end a (de)congestion pricing program that was going to begin on June 30th. We’re joined by Ben Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas to go over all the details.

Links discussed on the show: Riders Alliance | Transportation Alternatives

Also huge shout to Streetsblog NYC for some great reporting on this topic

Listen to this episode or read the transcript below:

Mondays 153 – Decongestion Pricing

Jeff Wood: [00:00:00] you’re listening to the talking headways podcast network.

Happy Monday. This is Mondays at the overhead wire sponsored by our super generous patron supporters. I’m Jeff Wood, your host and joined by

Ben Kabak: Ben came back from 2nd Avenue sagas in New York.

Jeff Wood: awesome Ben. Thanks so much for joining us on a kind of short notice, but also I wish we were talking under better circumstances,

Ben Kabak: As, do I, it’s been a long, a very long five days in New York city.

Jeff Wood: Yeah, we’re going to jump right into that actually. Usually I go through a bunch of ads and stuff for the show and all that. And folks, if they want to, you can go to our Patreon, patreon. com slash the overhead wire, or. Go to the show notes. There’s all the stuff for that is in the show notes, but this is episode one 53, we’re live and in session.

Christy will be here back again in two weeks to talk about the news. But we’re gonna, we’re going to talk about this one thing. Decongestion pricing. Do you call it decongestion

Ben Kabak: We’ve been calling it congestion pricing. I know some of the folks in the space prefer to call it decongestion pricing because it’s, it has more positive connotations either way.

Jeff Wood: Yeah, I either way it’s going to, I’ll probably re revert to congestion pricing. Cause that’s what [00:01:00] I’ve been saying for the last 15, 20 years. But I try to type it as decongestion pricing, but I can’t keep my tongue from doing that from time to time. So yeah, so let’s get into it.

Congestion pricing is on the ropes. So let’s talk about a background of it to start. So what is congestion pricing? What were you all going to do in New York city, in Manhattan?

Ben Kabak: For many decades and more recently for about the past 15 or 17 years, congestion pricing has been around the edges of the conversation in the transportation world. I think there’s a recognition that because Manhattan’s an Island, there are only so many cars that can fit into and out of it every day.

We haven’t built Luckily, thankfully, we haven’t built a new river crossing in nearly a century. So we’re constrained by the road capacity. We’re constrained by geography. And yet more cars keep ending up in Manhattan. People bought cars during the pandemic. There’s been natural growth. The excerpt spreads, you have people driving in from Pennsylvania every day.

You just, you have more and more volumes. [00:02:00] And at the same time, about 7 years ago, the MTA, which operates New York City subways and buses, went through what we all call a summer of hell, where things were just breaking down constantly. We knew that the system, which had seen a lot of investment since the 1990s, was better than it had been.

But it was at this tipping point where it needed a steady stream of income to be able to grow and expand, meet the demands of the area, grow with the area. And become really a world class 21st century system, which, it is in some ways right now, but it isn’t in many other ways. And in 2017, this all came to a head and over the next 18 months or so, leading up to April of 2019, then Governor Andrew Cuomo eventually came around to the idea of congestion pricing.

And for New York City, this plan was that for any vehicle that enters Manhattan, south of 60th, there will be some charge associated with it. It’s variable based on the time of day and the day of the [00:03:00] week. It’s variable based on the size of. The vehicle, but the idea here was that it would reduce traffic in Manhattan and in the surrounding areas by a certain percentage.

Though that was never. The overarching goal, and it was going to generate a billion dollars a year in revenue for the MTA, which the MTA could then rely on in perpetuity to bond out its capital plan. This would allow it to have a steady stream of income off of the backs of people who enjoy the benefits of the transit system, but weren’t necessarily using it and creating a number of negative externalities where you have traffic, you have people.

Pollution we lose, some estimates say that the New York City region loses two and a half billion dollars per year to the cost of congestion. So the idea was to speed up the roads and fund transit. There had been a bunch of political maneuvering around the environmental assessment during the end of the Trump years leading up into the Biden administration.

Trump [00:04:00] slow walked it or stopped federal approval of it under Biden that picked up again. And the MTA was on track to begin implementation on June 30th. So in 20 days from now, we should have been enjoying the benefits of the 1st in the nation congestion pricing program. There have been a number of lawsuits that have arisen some from New Jersey, some from New York City residents, some from suburban towns, all of them.

To varying degrees or other, I think most people thought did not really have much of a chance to succeed on the merits that you never know what judge you might draw. You never know who might stop it, at least temporarily. And the story goes now that as the date was growing closer, the governor was getting more nervous that outside forces weren’t going to stop it.

And while she had been a proponent of it for the first few years in office. She had gotten cold feet lately. It doesn’t pull particularly well in the lead up to implementation, though. That’s something that’s happened the world over wherever it’s been implemented. And so on [00:05:00] Tuesday night, after I’d gotten home from the Yankee game and was just about to go to sleep, my group chat.

Blew up because there had been some new stories coming out in the times and in Politico that she was about to pull the plug on it and it hit the fan on Wednesday when the governor announced via a YouTube video that she was no longer going to be moving forward on a temporary basis, at least with congestion pricing.

And it was on pause. , that is a lot.

Jeff Wood: And there’s even more that’s happened since that. I want to cover a couple of things before we get to the kind of the political stuff right away. 14, 15 billion that was going to be for bonding for capital projects. And that includes things like the Metro North Pennant station access, second Avenue subway.

There’s an ADA settlement agreement that was happening. Those types of things the fee tax, whatever you want to call it, was going to impact only one and a half to 2 percent of the commuters that were entering the cordon. So I just want to lay that number out there because I feel like that specifically.

Never gets addressed in [00:06:00] any reporting or anything along those lines. I’ve, I saw in my feed reader yesterday when I was, searching stories usually I have congestion pricing as a tag in my Google news and stuff like that. And usually it returns like eight or 10 results yesterday.

It was like 386. So it blew up, but a lot of the pieces, even pro pricing pieces didn’t have this number. And I think that’s a really important part of it is like. The minimal amount of people that was actually going to impact to

Ben Kabak: Yes. And 1 of the reasons why this works so well in New York City, and not to say that it wouldn’t also work well in Chicago or Boston or San Francisco, other cities that have a fairly high mode share of transit users is that. Most people, the overwhelming majority of people who are commuting into Manhattan, south of 60th street, even.

Based on changing traffic patterns that have grown out of the pandemic are still coming in through subways and buses, or the commuter rails or the ferries, they are simply not driving personal autos. And while the number of people driving is at about where it was. [00:07:00] Prior to covid some days, it’s a little higher and well, transit usage is still only about 70 to 75 to 80%, depending on the day of the week.

You’re still talking about millions more people per day coming into this area on transit and the number of people who are daily. Drivers into that part of Manhattan are such a small number of every part of New York City. So it just it from a policy perspective. And from a sort of story perspective, transit riders are getting a little bit lost here.

Their numbers are just so overwhelming that they become an amorphous blob and then individual drivers seem to be the main character of this story. Somehow they’re the protagonists. They’re the ones who are paying the cost. And there’s never an acknowledgement from politicians that transit riders who use an old aging system that’s prone to breaking down and hasn’t seen significant, meaningful expansion in a few generations, they don’t really count quite as much.

That’s my own personal frustration. And [00:08:00] it’s one of the reasons why congestion pricing would have worked so well. And hopefully one day we’ll still work really well in New York.

Jeff Wood: Yeah. According to the regional plan association, 84%. Of commuters come into Manhattan by train, transit, bus ferry, and then 14 percent by car. And so you can see that most, the national number, and I hate this number because it’s so misleading because it, it mixes in cities and rural areas and stuff like that, but the 5 percent number gets thrown around is 5 percent transit, 95 percent everything else.

It’s a dumb number, but that’s what I’m going to compare it to as we start. So let’s get the politics because this is really important too. So that political article you mentioned that was coming on to your group chat basically fingered Hakeem Jeffries, the, the house minority leader and Chuck Schumer.

The Senate majority leader as people who are pushing the governor to to take this away because of voters who maybe drove into the city every once in a while and didn’t want to pay this fee.

Ben Kabak: Yeah. So there’s some conflicting reporting that’s come out over the last five days. And I think some of the politicians have. [00:09:00] Really backpedaled from it, but as the initial story goes, at least Hakeem Jeffries and some of the state. Democratic party leaders felt that the congestion pricing polling numbers were going to have a negative impact on the 2024 congressional election.

They’re targeting a bunch of suburban districts that they lost in the midterms that they think they can win back in a high turnout election when Trump is on the ballot and. They were concerned that because congestion pricing, which was really polling in April and there’s no real way to sugarcoat this, right?

And if you look at the April polls, about 25 percent of people were excited about congestion pricing and supported it. And about 63 percent didn’t. I think there’s, we can talk about this later, but I think there’s a bit of an enthusiasm gap that doesn’t show up in those numbers. And I think there’s a presumption on the part of Washington officials that congestion pricing itself was actually going to drive people to vote for Democrats or Republicans in federal election.

And that is probably a bit of a flawed [00:10:00] presumption in 2024, but the initial story said. That they all got spooked by polling. Since then. Hakeem Jeffries has. Withdrawn from that story, so to speak, he’s tried to distance himself from that. I think. Senator Schumer never really got roped into it, and he’s been trying to save some of the money that could potentially be at risk.

And. Kathy Hochel and her supporters in Albany have pointed more to New York’s uneven post covid recovery and the economic impact again of a fee only for drivers as the reason to pause it. So there’s a bit of uncertainty still surrounding this. But one thing I think we know is that she didn’t really get cold feet until the polling numbers started to turn south

Jeff Wood: I saw this quote by Carl is it Heastie,

Ben Kabak: hasty. Yes,

Jeff Wood: the speaker of the New York state assembly. And one of this is the quote I’ve been one of the longest champions of congestion pricing, even when this came up with Bloomberg. But for the governor, she has her own [00:11:00] sense of where she thinks our polling actually hasn’t gone well in congestion pricing and she made a call.

And it was, this was reported by Vaughn Golden. So I just saw that quote and I was like yeah, it seems very, Like political and that polling must’ve spooked her.

Ben Kabak: I think that’s what happened. And what I think a lot of advocates find frustrating is that the polling results were not a surprise. There’s something when congestion pricing is on the path to implementation, there’s something called the valley of death. And if you look at how this played out in Stockholm, if you look at how this played out in London, it’s initially a pretty popular idea.

And in New York, there are even some polls early on where it was enjoying majority support, which was surprising. It usually it’s, in the upper 40s or so, but we have 1 poll from early 2019, where it actually broke. 54 percent within the New York City region within the city, et cetera. So this wasn’t an idea that people were embracing when it was fresh in their minds when they had distinct memories of how bad the system had become, and then over [00:12:00] time, it wasn’t pulled too often, but over time, you saw this decline until you’re right at the precipice of implementation where it hits that low point and you can either give in to the valley of death or you can push through it.

And at least in other cities, and again, there’s no reason to assume New York City would be different from any other city. Once it’s implemented that approval shoots up drivers like it, because it gets cars that don’t need to be on the road off the road. And they have faster rides transit riders like it because they’re getting an investment and there are new transit benefits.

And ultimately it just. Becomes a background issue. And unfortunately, the governor seems to have made the political decision that giving in now will be more popular than just writing it out. And if she had met the implementation date of June, by the time September and October roll around, I think most people would either have Forgotten that they were upset about it, or they’d be enjoying the benefits of it.

And now, instead, it’s going to become part of a much larger, louder and longer conversation.[00:13:00]

Jeff Wood: And that’s the question I have for you is from the, from a politics perspective, like she just basically made it a, an issue when it really maybe wouldn’t have been. That’s a, that’s something that pops out to me is you were worried about polling. You’re worried about something that was like an amoeba.

It just it was out there, but people don’t, and people didn’t really know what it is. It’s like improving transit service generally. Like people don’t understand what that means for them in the future until they experience it. But now she’s made it so that she can get attacked on it by both sides.

Ben Kabak: Yes. Yeah. Some of it’s that she’s not particularly astute at the politics. Playing the political game, and I think that’s been a criticism of her time in Albany. She’s an accidental governor. She was lieutenant governor when Andrew Cuomo resigned in the wake of a few different.

Sexual harassment scandals she fell into the role. She won a closer election than it really should have been against a fairly weak and vulnerable opponent, though, in a not very favorable. Midterm for her, [00:14:00] and I think she didn’t really think this through from what I’ve heard at this point.

The folks in Washington are trying to distance themselves from her and are pretty miffed at the way she’s botched this because now, as you mentioned, it’s going to be a larger issue and it’s raising issues of competency. If this is how. A blue state governor governs when she has a super majority in the legislature. How does that reflect? On a party that’s trying to make the case that it should be entrusted with all houses of the federal government and people in D. C. Are not thrilled with this. And I think the suburban legislatures in New York in the suburban. Politicians running for election see this as a weakness.

They see that she’s pandering to voters. They think she’s going to go through with this one day anyway. And if not, she still has to come up with a lot of funds for the MTA. So she’s backed herself into a political corner. That’s very hard to get out of.

Jeff Wood: Has anybody heard from secretary Buttigieg or

Ben Kabak: No

Jeff Wood: They’re off the map. I haven’t [00:15:00] seen anything.

Ben Kabak: They’re off the map. I personally find that a little frustrating. I think D. C. has been holding out for some sort of response from New York to coalesce. In terms of very insider baseball timelines, the feds were supposed to have released their final approval for congestion pricing.

This past Friday, the M. T. A. was expecting to receive it. On I guess that would make it the 7th. They haven’t yet released that letter because they’re waiting to see how everything plays out in New York, all indicators were that they were going to get the go ahead. It was going to be a smooth sailing.

Unless 1 of these lawsuits was successful. DC is holding to see where. The public response comes out on this, but I, from what I have heard, there’s a bit of movement and some push within the feds to wash their hands of this and they are actually inclined to still issue the approvals and really push this back onto New York state as a state issue but it would be nice to hear more of a leadership response from [00:16:00] DC right now.

Jeff Wood: I want to ask about that state response because it was interesting to see what happened after the announcement. I think that she probably thought that was the best idea because she heard from some folks in some diners. And we’ll talk about that in a bit. But but she really got like a blowback that I don’t think that any of them expected, not the Senate or the assembly or anybody.

And I, I feel like that really was something that I was heartened by, even though it is a damaging thing overall. I feel like that was really intense. A couple of days where I was feeling like I was hearting everything on Twitter and retweeting and all that stuff that I haven’t done in forever.

And I saw people coming back from from other sites coming back to Twitter because that was where it was all happening.

Ben Kabak: It was a real sort of old Twitter moment. I think people ran to it to get information and to figure out how to organize and to really have a coordinated response. There were a lot of emails going back and forth between a lot of us in that space trying to get information. Figure out the best way to get people engaged and to [00:17:00] keep them engaged.

And I think what sort of happened with the polling and this can happen if you’re relying. More heavily on polling and aren’t as close to that community. And to Kathy’s credit, which I hate to really give her right now, she had been close to it for a while and maybe should have understood this, but there’s a real enthusiasm gap between, people who like and support congestion pricing and people who don’t like it, where it’s like I mentioned, it’s one of those issues where if you ask people, do they like the idea? No, but how much do they actually care about it? And the people who are in support of it and have been fighting for it for such a long time and who were looking forward to it and relying on it really do care about it.

And that’s not an insignificant number of people. So what happened was all of these people who were hoping for it to arrive, Manhattan residents, bus riders, people who were waiting for the subway to get its moment all of the folks who were part of that ADA settlement, which was extremely important for accessibility [00:18:00] in New York city, they feel that she stab them in the back and they activated a network to try to keep fighting for this, go after local politicians who are supportive and make sure that they know we have their backs. If they don’t pass some sort of stop gap or give into this, understand that this has been in New York state law for 5 years, and that we’re expecting that law to ultimately come to fruition, whether it’s in 20 days or 200 days the community of people who are interested in this really wanted to get the message out that this is where we expect New York City to be. This is the kind of leadership we want to see on transit. And this is the kind of leadership we want to see on the environment. And we’re still here, it was something that was passed because there was a reason for it.

And everybody who’s been following along for so long, waiting for this day is still here and still very invested in it.

Jeff Wood: Two days before the end of the session, she did this the state session. And so that put up a lot of lawmakers up against the wall. And that must’ve been very frustrating for them. And I, it seemed like [00:19:00] people were pushing back like Liz Krueger being like, look, , this is a law, this is supposed to go through and you’re trying to get us to fix it in the last minute, in the last section of the, like we were supposed to talk, we were supposed to be talking about other things.

Ben Kabak: I think this is a very important point. And it’s 1 where again, she failed on the politics of this. So the congestion pricing plan itself doesn’t operate. Only as a fee on drivers, right? It’s as we were talking about, it’s supposed to be the basis for bonding out a 50 to 55, 000, 000, 000 dollar capital plan.

And it’s supposed to generate revenue down the road. And the M. T. A. has been entering into contracts on the basis of. Having that money, they’ve agreed to federal funding schemes on the basis of having that money. The feds have committed billions of dollars to phase 2 of the 2nd Avenue subway because the congestion pricing revenue is going to be there for the to meet its share.

And the governor did not identify an adequate [00:20:00] source of reliable money. Prior to deciding to pull the plug on this. So what happened is that she put legislator in the bind where they had to come up with money Or not the option is has still been there for them to do nothing and continue to have this program operate and her plan didn’t have a replacement source of funding.

She had not identified any in her video. She just said, oh, trust me. I’ll make this happen. But she’s not a political operator in the same way that her predecessor was, and she didn’t really have the fallback in place. So 1st, her 1st idea. Was a short term payroll mobility tax only on New York City businesses that were generating.

I think her threshold was 1. 75M dollars in payroll a year and for her to come around for her to start it out by saying. This is an economic hardship on drivers, but hey, New York City businesses. Who are struggling with real estate costs when [00:21:00] nobody’s going to the office and trying to get people into the city.

We’re going to tax you some more. It just seems like 1 hand is saying 1 thing. The other hand is saying the other thing and they’re not actually talking to each other. That

Jeff Wood: They’re not punishing externalities either.

Ben Kabak: That’s yes. And none of these are actually getting it congestion, which she still claims she’s going to fight.

It never really made it to a vote and then she had this idea of an, we’ll just vote on a 1B dollars. We don’t know where it’s going to come from. Trust us. It’ll be there. And there, and I think a lot of the state senators started getting a little bit of cold feet on this because they’re very aware of the fact that they can’t let the fall.

They have a responsibility to ensuring that we have adequate subway service and that these growth plans can. Come to fruition. But there was so much pressure put on them that enough of them helped the course that this also did not end up getting even put up to a vote. In the end, there’s no replacement funding. There’s this potential to lose a lot of funding in [00:22:00] Albany, and she comes out with egg on her face. And I think politically, that’s a very good outcome for people who are pro congestion pricing, because it’s forcing her to reconcile with the overall impact of what she did, where it’s not just giving drivers an excuse, but it’s also potentially losing out on billions of dollars of investment in the New York City region.

Jeff Wood: The billion dollar IOU is interesting. I saw so many people on Twitter saying then why is my library closed? Or why is all these constituencies were like, we told me I couldn’t have, I didn’t have money for this, or you didn’t have money for this. So now you just bring in a billion dollars out of nowhere.

And that was really interesting to me as well. The other thing that was really interesting from this, just watching from was the whole idea of. Of planning. And what’s the purpose of planning and doing 4, 000 page environmental reviews and everything like that. If some executive can just be like, okay, we did that for 10 years.

So now we’re just going to do something else

Ben Kabak: Yeah, that’s a very tough question and I think there’s been a lot of focus recently nationally on how onerous some of these environmental review laws are [00:23:00] and the requirements to do these comprehensive studies. For programs that are obviously net benefits to the environment. I know there’s been a lot of talk and permitting on permitting reform.

They haven’t really gained too much traction yet, but it’s certainly an issue that people are thinking of and it’s very frustrating to see a governor. Then step in and just say you did. 5 years of studies, you’re facing all these lawsuits, but I’m just going to not put my signature on a piece of paper that’s required to it.

And now you can’t go forward with it. There are some. Movements afoot to see if there’s our grounds for a lawsuit. It’s a, it’s I think in New York law, this would actually be a new area of litigation and jurisprudence, forcing the governor to execute a law that her predecessor signed into.

It’s basically, it’s signed into law, so we’ll see where that goes. But it is very frustrating to see years of planning. Just go up and smoke. And I know that from folks who have been working within the empty and [00:24:00] without on seeing this through, there’s a lot of frustration and low morale these days.

Jeff Wood: from a transportation perspective. It’s also interesting because the program wasn’t going to cost a lot of money to implement. Unlike building like the second Avenue subway or whatever else, which costs a lot of money and you’re, you have cost increases, overruns and stuff like that, you can implement this program and it gives you money instead of taking money to, for the most part.

Which is a really interesting kind of reversal of what we’ve seen from, these big, investments in transportation policy and programming.

Ben Kabak: yeah, the the upfront costs. For the tolling infrastructure, it sounds high, but it’s only about 500Million dollars. They’ve spent nearly all of it. If not all of it, the signs are up. The public awareness campaigns are out there. We have tolling gantries along the entirety of the congestion pricing zone, which the MTA said today are turned on and collecting traffic data.

So so right now. There’s a big fear that an agency that doesn’t have a lot of money and has been denied a capital [00:25:00] stream for funding has also spent 500 million of bad money on something that’s never going to be used. But yes, it’s a fairly low cost program and it uses technology, license plate readers, and Transponders that we’re all very familiar with, because every time anybody in New York crosses a bridge, that’s how they’re getting told these days.

Jeff Wood: You talk about the legal stuff. I saw Aaron Gordon, right? Basically the 2009 public authorities reform act explicitly stated the MTA board is an independent body and should be making all decisions. With the MTA’s fiscal responsibility as its primary concern. The legal kind of gray areas are starting to pop up.

Ben Kabak: Yes, I think Aaron’s initial piece, which came out over the weekend was a fascinating look at what the MTA board could or could not do. I think in the intervening days, it seems clear that the MTA board is not actually going to have an opportunity to have much of a say in this. The governor’s withholding her state’s Dot commissioners signature on an authorization letter, which [00:26:00] everybody assumed would just be a formality.

What will be interesting to see is how the board approaches this from a public messaging perspective. They’re going to have to review the capital plan which is a document that comes out every 5 years and lays out their capital. Projects and they’re going to have to vote to cut some of these out of the budget because the money for now just isn’t there.

That will give the board an opportunity to make itself heard on this issue. Unfortunately, I think the fiduciary responsibilities means they have to vote to cut some of these because they cannot commit. The MTA to spend money that it doesn’t have access to. I would imagine that will be a very lively and intense debate if they’re planning to do it at the next board meeting in 2 weeks.

Jeff Wood: And then finally, in this kind of the section of our discussion I am interested in the folks who are happy about the, the blockage of this program, the Josh Gottheimers and who almost deep six, the inflation [00:27:00] reduction act and the infrastructure bill with his own wackiness.

There’s. There’s other folks, the car dealers that she was supposed to have a fundraising event with in a couple of days. And just like this interesting cast of characters that she had as her supporters on this move.

Ben Kabak: Yeah, it’s it’s a wide cast of characters, right? Because of the way the program was. Spun up and presented to the public, New Jersey kind of drew the short straw here, which, maybe wasn’t the best politics, but also was the reality of New York doing this on its own in that none of the congestion pricing money was going to go to support New Jersey transit. Projects and expanding transit access through New Jersey. The governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy has been very against that. Josh has been extremely against it to the point where it’s become a singular focus of his. And while I appreciate that he’s representing his constituents to the best of.

His knowledge, it seems to me again, like a bit of a blind spot, because [00:28:00] even in an area that. Got hammer represents, which is a bit of a transit desert as the suburban communities around New York City go. He still doesn’t have a majority of. Commuters into Manhattan, even taking their cars, let alone, a majority of all the people in his district, so he’s fighting for 3 to 5 percent of the folks that he represents. Another 30 percent or so take buses end up on the subway system. 1 way or another. Again, it seems that he’s there’s this inability to. Really conceptualized transit writers versus drivers, and I think there, there was wiggle room for politics to be a little better there.

I think there could have been a split of the money that went to New Jersey to help them improve some of their aging system, though. There’s no need for New York to cover for bad decisions that New Jersey has made over the last 15 years that we’ve seen with the cancellation of the arc tunnel and a variety of potential [00:29:00] decisions to expand the turnpike into the Holland tunnel, instead of trying to invest more in transit.

But you have to play that game. There’s a bit of a tit for tat. The MTA New Jersey had some settlement discussions. Those had not really proceeded as well as everybody had hoped, but that’s just 1 piece of the puzzle. You had the car dealers who felt that it would depress car ownership rates.

And you even have the folks who are taking a little bit of a selfish me angle where they’re the 2nd homeowners who live in New York City and have a home in the Hamptons and would have to pay to leave. Manhattan to get to their 2nd home in the Hamptons. They’re hardly the most sympathetic people and they’re the ones you would think.

A could afford the congestion pricing fee without really noticing it and B would stand to benefit from fewer cars on the road, but they’re still the ones filing these lawsuits, trying to catch some sort of magic and find a judge who would stop them. But they’re the folks who are happy.

They don’t really have an answer for the 88, the investments. They don’t really have an answer for. Solving the [00:30:00] problem of congested Manhattan streets, they think all of these claims are trumped up. They think people have an inalienable right to drive a car on every square inch of Manhattan roads, which is just a physics test problem that you can’t pass.

But there, there are people who are happy about this.

Jeff Wood: Yeah. Yeah. I’m sure you could do a whole podcast about New Jersey and New York relationships related to transit and transportation, but we’ll save that for another day. I want to talk about the press conference. On Friday. Late Friday afternoon, New York time midday here in California.

The governor holds a press conference the best time to release bad news is always on a Friday

Ben Kabak: Oh, yes.

Jeff Wood: so this is a, I imagine she hit out basically for those three days or so that this was all going on and then pops up at the end of Friday. And I found that really interesting.

And I think that, basically that kind of showed a little bit more of where she was at maybe, or maybe it just, she was trying to cover What she had done, but [00:31:00] didn’t quite understand what was happening because of the backlash, because of all the legal ramifications and things like that. So she popped out of the of the whole like Paxatawney Phil.

Ben Kabak: Yep. She disappeared, right? She made the announcement by a prerecorded video. She wasn’t available for questions. She had a few closed door events and let the state Senate and the state assembly take the heat on this and take the pressure while the phone lines and Albany were blowing up. She appeared at 7 15 on a summer Friday.

As the legislative year was ending in New York, and was pretty combative, which was in character for her when she’s run into these fights before she’s really dug in and has been very combative about it, forcing the state legislator to to shoot down what she’s put in front of them, which is pretty much what happened here.

And, she talked about speaking to people who own diners in Manhattan and claiming that a bunch of their customers drive in, [00:32:00] some of these stories that just that you hear from politicians all the time, but just don’t pass the smell test. And it really felt like fishing for.

A populist angle to counter the anger that’s been directed towards her. I’m sure she’s aware that phone lines in Albany have been ringing more for this issue than they have for just about anything over the whole bunch of last few decades. But she’s trying to turn this into a win for her and in doing so, she’s really showing the limits of her political acumen and the ability for her to really get the story told convincingly.

Jeff Wood: And she threw some diner owners under the bus and maybe that didn’t some of them who shouldn’t have been actually.

Ben Kabak: Yeah it’s funny. One of the diners or one of the restaurants that she threw under the bus, which I’m sure this I’m sure she’s not lying about the conversations that she had, though. I’m sure at this point, they’re pissed that she mentioned them is a restaurant called Pershing square cafe, which is.

quite literally in Grand Central itself. It’s across 42nd Street [00:33:00] from the entrance to Grand Central. It’s a very popular spot for business breakfast, but that’s because everybody coming in from the train has to get off the train there. So if you’re going to your office downtown, it’s right there. If you’re going to your office uptown, it’s right there.

And the idea that This is a restaurant that people are driving to from New Jersey, and that somehow congestion pricing is going to ruin them. A couple of the reporters in the city staked out the restaurant today. They spoke to 25 people there. None of them drove there, and I think you’d be doing that for weeks before you found somebody who said they intentionally drove there.

Not totally fair to the people running the businesses, but also at the same time, if that’s the story that she’s telling, I think it’s putting these folks in the crosshairs a bit.

Jeff Wood: Yeah. Yeah. And one of the things that we know from San Francisco and other places where we’ve had these. The same issues with active transportation, policy, but whether it’s bike lanes or bus lanes or anything like that is the folks that oppose them typically, it’s not their customers necessarily that are driving to the places it’s them [00:34:00] themselves.

And so there’s a bit of that too, where the owners of these establishments are usually the ones who are driving in and. To cover, they blame their, the people that, that purchased from them. Which here in San Francisco, I believe it was on Polk street. There was like a dentist who, said all of the, all of their customers come by car and it’s not really, because there’s no parking and it would be hard to get there.

Ben Kabak: We’ve seen that in New York with protected bike lanes with bus lanes, busways and this too. And 1 of the diner owners did say, he didn’t say that. Oh, all of my employees commute in through trains, but he did say that he drives in every day. And that’s why he doesn’t like the policy because his restaurant is in the zone.

He’d be driving in from out of the zone and he get charged every day. But that’s exactly what’s happening here. You’re talking about businesses where there’s The owners either don’t care or think that everybody has their experiences where something like 90 percent of traffic to these businesses comes through people walking, comes through people taking the subway or a bus, not from driving.

And they just tend to think that Everybody’s driving.

Jeff Wood: [00:35:00] I mentioned this on Twitter. I think I might just start announcing to places that I come into about how I got there, whether it’s a bike or bus or otherwise because just to tell them like, Hey, I came to this really nice restaurant. My wife and I came and we walked up the Hill from the BRT on Van Ness like the other people may have driven and complained about the parking, but we got here, it was okay. so just share that.

Ben Kabak: it’s what I always wondered. These folks who own businesses just really have that little of an understanding about their own customer base, or they just don’t care to find out. And I was, I wonder if it’s one of those ignorance is bliss type of issues.

Jeff Wood: It might just be the squeaky wheel too. Like they might care, but it’s just be like when you’re complaining, it’s all you hear is the complaining. You don’t hear the other stuff. Basically so the thing happens. And so there’s this question about whether pricing is dead or not.

And so I guess that’s the next part of this is , how does this move forward and does it survive, does it reincarnate on June 30th? Does it, come a little bit further down the line? Is it something that is definitely going to [00:36:00] be like a major talking point during the November election, because it was made that way after this week’s shenanigans, just so much stuff going on,

Ben Kabak: I think there are a couple of potential scenarios here. And I think a lot of people are, and while everybody’s trying to parse. Governor’s words very closely, I think there’s some. Hope that she’s shifted her rhetoric a little to say, it’s a pause. She still supports congestion pricing, and even by saying that she’s still going on the record and voicing some hope that this program will get off the ground. And I think there are a few scenarios. 1, is that sure 1 of these lawsuits is successful and is ordered by a court to sign the authorization letter. And then it just moves forward. That’s maybe a bit of a pie in the sky scenario. And I think a lot of this hinges on if she’s serious about a pause, but I think you can see this playing out in a couple of ways. The election in November passes. Biden [00:37:00] wins, Hakeem Jeffries becomes Speaker of the House, who knows what happens with the Senate, whether Schumer stays Majority Leader or ends up as Minority Leader, it probably doesn’t matter, at that point, she can release her authorization because it’s no longer a political issue and everybody got what they wanted. Let’s say that doesn’t happen, Trump wins, Hakeem Jeffries does not get to be Speaker of the House, it this ploy failed. She could release the authorization in November. There’d be a bit of a mad scramble to get everything in place before a less friendly Trump administration comes in and starts making noises about withdrawing their approvals of the program altogether.

If they can figure out a legal justification for it but I think those are the 2 optimistic scenarios where at some point later in the year, depending on what happens in November. She will release this pause if she’s serious about a pause. I know there’s some concern that her rhetoric has adopted anti congestion pricing arguments, and she could be [00:38:00] looking for ways to kill it.

We just don’t know as to whether this persists as an issue into the election. I like to think that transportation is everybody’s favorite topic when it comes to elections. But I think as we all. No,

Jeff Wood: both,

Ben Kabak: up into 2024, they’re going to be a lot more issues on the table. And I think what Jeffrey’s if he’s involved in this, and What Hochul sort of have failed to understand is that by the time October rolls around, no, one’s even going to care about congestion pricing 1 way or another.

I think there’s going to be so much focus on what the impact of the federal election is for so many other issues that are much more top of mind. That nobody’s going to be out there voting, voting. On congestion pricing, 1 way or another, and this will really have seemed like an exercise in futility that probably just ends up being some sort of costly political delay and causing a mad scramble for a few months.

Jeff Wood: I was going to say, can you see people like just pulling the lever, basically against the governor, just because of the just shenanigans. It looks bad I like just [00:39:00] not because of the toll, not because of congestion pricing, but just because hey, you did all this crap.

I didn’t like, and that was part of it. And what are you doing? Like other side.

Ben Kabak: I think it’s so tough to really say what happens when Donald Trump is on the ballot, particularly in New York, where there’s so much sentiment against him. But I think this doesn’t help the Democrats tell a story of competent governance. And so now they have to overcome that.

And that will probably be fresh on people’s minds when. When it comes to the ballot, because you have a party that approved, you have the president. Whose dot in Washington approved congestion pricing for a governor of the same party and that governor of the same party then was the one who decided to just remove that approval or withhold the signature that needs to be done.

And there’s some concerns that this does not reflect well on a coordinated party response, but I’m still just not sure. When somebody gets into that voting booth in November, that they’re going to [00:40:00] really have that front and center with all the other noise that’s going to come out over the next 4 months or so 5 months. Maybe they will. Maybe there’ll be a handful. Maybe it’s enough to sway some of these very close districts. But to me, it feels like it’s a political miscalculation just because they’re overstating the importance of this issue and they missed how important it is to a lot of people.

Jeff Wood: The MTA CEO had a press conference today. What was the result of that? That’s something that I wasn’t able to catch, but I saw that there was a lot of notes on Twitter about, what he said and some hope about, the pushback and whether, some people earlier in the week, they were like, you should resign a Lieber.

You should, leave the board should resign. This is betrayal, et cetera, et cetera. But then. It slowly feels like the MTAs is punching back a little bit

Ben Kabak: Yes, they are within the confines of the political structure, right? So what makes this challenging for the MTA is that while it’s a public benefit corporation, it’s really a state agency. [00:41:00] The governor appoints the head of the MTA. The governor appoints the board members who do have a fiduciary duty to the MTA.

But ultimately, politics are at play. And it’s very rare to see a state agency aggressively defend itself from the person who is in charge of the state agency. And what you saw today from General Lieber’s press conference was that he was pointed in his comments, very clear that this was not something the MTA itself was aligned with.

And it was not something they had signed up for. They were prepared to move forward with congestion pricing. They had worked very hard to get there. They were relying on it and that now they have a political problem where they have to go back to the drawing board and figure out what projects to cut.

And as much as he could without. Really becoming too much of a political creature. General Lieber basically said, this is a problem that’s been created for us and we’re going to have to solve it. And we’re going to [00:42:00] have to solve it publicly and in a way that’s going to hurt, which is not something that the MTA has really ever done.

Over the course of its time as an entity, since 1968, it’s always been very much a creature of the state, very much answerable to the governors who are in charge of it. And this was a new tone. And I think what happened is that the MTA was emboldened by the outpouring of public support. And essentially, they put out a very aggressive comment late on Friday after the governor’s press conference.

Pushing this back on her saying, we’re going to have to cut system modernization. We’re going to have to cut 80 upgrades. This is not really something we want to do, but we have hard choices that we have to make. And I think what you’re seeing. Is an agency that’s daring her. To fire people, if she feels that they are out of line, which would cause even more political blowback or 1, that’s going to try to bat for itself to the extent that it can [00:43:00] within the political structures in New York.

Jeff Wood: around the country. This is important too. And, I think, a lot of folks could say, oh, this is just a Manhattan issue, or this is just a New York region issue, a New Jersey, Connecticut issue. The greater New York region as a whole, the megalopolis even going down the East coast.

But this is actually something that I think is going to impact other places as well. Like a Seattle or San Francisco or Los Angeles, who’ve been talking about congestion pricing as well. And everybody was waiting. You can see Stockholm did it. You can see that London did it, but we are very averse to looking at international examples here in the United States.

And so if New York could have done it. And gotten something out of it, then maybe other places could have followed suit. And I feel like there’s a lot of kind of hand wringing about, the setback that this creates for the climate movement for transportation movement around the country. And I think that’s another angle that maybe blows this up outside of the New York region.

Ben Kabak: I think that’s why so many people outside of the New York region. We’re [00:44:00] paying close attention to it because there are a lot of very engaged transit activists in a lot of these cities. That we’re really hoping New York could be a model for some sort of plan to tame traffic and invest more in transit and a lot of cities have over their history.

I think people have seen as particularly as car usage has exploded post pandemic and folks are seeing. Harder to get people out of cars once they get in them than it used to be. They were really looking to New York to be a leader. In this space, and sure, you can look at London and you can look at Stockholm, but people really seem to feel in America that we have to do something ourselves for it to really to know that it’s going to work here.

And this is a bit of a setback. It also invites a city. With stronger leadership to take. Charge on this now, though, it’s hard to say that there is 1 waiting in the wings, willing to do this.

Jeff Wood: Yeah, I don’t necessarily see that, especially since it’s hard for them to get some of the active transportation things going that [00:45:00] they’ve been trying to get going, whether that’s bike lanes, bus lanes, et cetera. And this seems like a harder left, especially with all those excuses of post pandemic office Losses because of work from home and things like that, especially here in San Francisco.

It’s a political push and you could make it if you really wanted to. But there’s a lot of folks who believe that would be a death knell to any mayoral candidate campaign that might be going on here in San Francisco or anything along those lines. So people don’t want to touch it with the 10 foot pole.

Even though maybe they should.

Ben Kabak: It does require a level of political courage and cover that I think. Politicians are not sure they have these days just because everybody is. They’re so fickle against incumbents. They’re so fickle against change. I think there’s just a lot of nervousness that. Voters will revolt though I think some of these.

Leaders of cities with robust transit networks. That are used to the culture of transit should be more willing to take the plunge and feel that voters will cover them.

Jeff Wood: Like I said earlier, one of the heartening things was This huge groundswell of support [00:46:00] for this, action to move congestion pricing forward. There’s a lot of people, calling every day to the, their local representatives, the senators. I’m curious, like what, if you’re outside of New York What can you do to support this?

I know this might sound silly, but I called Nancy Pelosi and I said, Hey, I know this is a New York issue, but I really do support congestion pricing. I think it’s important for the rest of the country to see an example of this climate leadership. And I think that’s something that people can do is even if that’s just calling their local representative that might be helpful too.

But, is there something people can, Should people be calling Hakeem Jeffrey? Should people be calling Chuck Schumer and telling, giving their support, like who should we be calling and emailing,

Ben Kabak: I always say. Everybody should call everybody they possibly can, I think it’s congressmen Congress members of Congress in particular like to hear from their own constituents in their own zip codes and whatever neighborhood they represent. But I think if there’s a groundswell of support of people around the country saying we were really looking to see this leadership on climate [00:47:00] change, and we were really looking to see this leadership on investing in a city and investing in. Transportation and transit in ways that we just haven’t seen. It’s going to make noise in Washington. I think there’s, people are clamoring for more city based investment. We hear a lot about how there’s a mismatch in federal funds that are sent outside of the more populous areas and. To get this close to a program that could be so transformative to what a lot of people for better or worse view as America’s leading urban light is very frustrating.

And the more people from these areas that get in touch with our officials in New York and their own officials at home and say, push for this issue. I think the louder that drumbeat is, and the more isolated somebody who’s of the same party as many of these city representatives gets, and it just helps put pressure on her to change course.

Jeff Wood: is there a good place for folks to get some information about, phone numbers or things like that, or active, activists that are [00:48:00] working on this stuff. I know that there’s been a lot of stuff been passed around on Twitter.

Ben Kabak: Yeah, the writers alliance, which is a group I’m very closely involved with in New York City has been doing a lot of organizing transportation alternatives, which has been working in the space in New York City for a very long time has also been organizing calls, protests, rallies. So the information is out there, particularly.

For New York, I think when you call these offices especially New York, local offices, they always want to make sure that they’re talking to constituents. So it’s probably not as helpful for outsiders to be calling state senators in New York. And we want to get people who are able to talk to folks that represent them, but certainly in DC to make that noise heard, talk to anybody.

Jeff Wood: Awesome. So on the Monday show, we usually talk about this at the end of the show I have this. Segment called puppies and butterflies. And basically it’s part of the show where we can talk about something fun, interesting, or maybe it just didn’t fit in the other sections where we talked about news, about cities and things like that.

Do you have anything happy that’s happened lately? Like any good New York Yankees game stuff. I know [00:49:00] you’re a big fan and all

Ben Kabak: I am a, I’m a big fan. And while they had a little bit of a rough weekend against LA, they’re,

Jeff Wood: you guys got us a few times. I know

Ben Kabak: they did.

Jeff Wood: Francisco,

Ben Kabak: They’re one of the best teams in the Majors this year and it’s been a much more fun season than the last couple of years and Aaron Judge, which I also know is a sore subject for Giants fans, is having just a ridiculous season right now.

He leads the Majors in nearly every offensive category, even after not doing anything for the month of April and is on one of those tears that we haven’t seen, since Bonds did it for full seasons on end. So it’s been a fun, It’s been a fun baseball season and a good break from watching the transportation world fall apart over the last five or six days.

Jeff Wood: I hear you. And for me, I think I’ve been watching the acolyte on Disney plus for some, I’m a big star Wars fan. And so it’s been fun to. See a little bit of a different time period and a little bit different vibe. So that’s been good. And fun. I don’t know if you’re a big star Wars fan, but it’s something that I talk about on puppies, butterflies, a lot.

Ben Kabak: I have not watched the Acolyte yet, but I’ve watched a bunch of the other Disney Plus

Jeff Wood: [00:50:00] Nice. Ben, where can folks find you if you wish to be found?

Ben Kabak: You can find me on Twitter at Second Avenue sagas. It’s two a V S a G a S. And that’s pretty much my most vocal outlet these days.

Jeff Wood: Awesome. And you can find me on Twitter at the overhead wire. com. You can find me on mastodon, the overhead wire, SFBA dot social Instagram threads at the red wire. There’s too many social media sites these days. You can find me on LinkedIn too, if you really want to. Thanks for joining us at money’s at the ordered wire.

Thanks for Ben for coming on to talk about this really crazy, amazing subject that I hope gets passed forward. I want to thank our generous patrons for sponsoring this week’s podcast as well. Ben, thanks so much for coming.

Ben Kabak: Thanks for having me, Jeff. It’s always a pleasure.

Jeff Wood: Awesome. And we’ll see everybody else next time.


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