The Overhead Wire Daily | June 6th, 2024 | (De)congestion Deflated

June 6, 2024

Well that blew up today’s news…

Yesterday New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced that she was going to kill (de)congestion pricing just a month before the first toll would have been collected.

The $15 toll to enter Manhattan below 60th street would likely revolutionize transportation policy in not just New York City but North America as others could learn from a program that has been tried in other cities around the world to much success.

The governor had held out until now as a supporter of the program but for some reason decided to blow it up at the last minute for what seems like political reasons, urged by House Minority Leader and Brooklyn Rep. Hakeem Jeffries over the idea that tight voters in certain house districts would be turned off by the charge. Some also believe that Majority Leader Senator Schumer was also likely involved in the idea, which is not unlikely given some of his past active transportation missteps. I would venture to say that she just made a lot of New Yorkers who supported her mad and unlikely to support her in the future.

From a political standpoint, the move shows how Democrats around the country are more than happy to support drivers over transit riders, even in an area where the vast majority of people don’t drive or even own a car. Not only that, examples from other countries show that pricing is the least popular right when it starts and gains greater popularity over time. It’s possible the positive impact of the policy could have been seen by the fall election. But the governor has had a tough time implementing good housing and transportation policy mostly because of her own missteps and fights with the suburbs.

The other issue that is driving people mad about this kick in the stomach is that the MTA had already started spending money it would have received from the pricing scheme and budgeted for it. They had put up equipment and had a contract in place for implementation to the tune of $500M.  Not only that, the MTA is supposed to be making transit stations accessible and losing funding could kill the Second Avenue Subway extension. The board didn’t even know it was happening.

Additionally, Governor Hochul’s funding replacement is a $1B business/payroll tax in Manhattan. As one Twitter user explained, how is getting rid of congestion pricing going to help recovery when instead of charging for the negative externality of driving from a few drivers, getting them off the road and reducing friction, you tax all Manhattan businesses? Reporters shared that the business tax plan has gone over like a lead balloon in the State Senate and Assembly Democrats cancelled their conference that was supposed to happen last night. Their support are likely needed to make the switch.

There was also hope that the MTA Board could actually decide to move forward with pricing with Aaron Gordon sharing that the announcement violates the 2009 Public Authorities Reform Act which states the MTA board is independent and should be making decisions based on the MTA’s fiscal responsibilities. Ben Kabak wasn’t so sure that was an avenue forward after a representative of the Board informed judges taking the cases against the program that it was paused.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing is the fact that this program has been studied to death for decades. It’s finally gotten to the point of implementation and the rug got pulled out from under the advocates and public servants that have been tirelessly working to get it over the finish line. Did they waste their lives writing several thousand pages of environmental documents and getting yelled at by angry constituents? Perhaps someone can ask Rep. Jeffries next time they see him. All for a few more suburban votes that might not materialize and from voters that may be happy for a week then forget about it completely.

As others have noted, it will also be a setback for urban and climate policy in this country for likely a decade or more if it stands. It’s also a setback for people of New York, whether they supported the program or not, as the reductions in driving offset by increases in transit service and funding would have meant cleaner air and less emissions.

For me personally, I feel like we get hit with the same stuff over and over again as advocates. Here in the Bay Area it happens all the time too, so it’s not just a New York issue. Ask Indianapolis advocates about going through this crap over the last several years. It’s hard not to lose faith that the system is ever going to work for you or your preferences if Lucy keeps pulling the football at the whim of some power broker who doesn’t care about you or the preferred policy either way. I think if a policy is good and tried and it doesn’t work, that’s fine. But to never be given a chance is another issue entirely.

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