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Hochul Defends Congestion Pricing Pause By Invoking ‘New Jersey Customers’ Driving to Midtown Diners, Hardware Stores

The governor’s first press conference since throwing state government and the MTA into chaos got a little weird.

Governor Hochul at the podium during the presser.

(Darren McGee/ Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)

In a hastily convened press conference on Friday night, Governor Kathy Hochul told reporters that she did not need the MTA board's permission to pause congestion pricing, and that her complete about-face on the program that would reduce congestion in Lower Manhattan while raising $15 billion for the MTA was not political, but rooted in the concerns of "working and middle class New Yorkers."

Also, people who drive into Midtown diners from across the tri-state area and the owners of those diners.

Towards the end of the press conference, Hochul was asked a pointed question. "I mean this with due respect, but, how stupid do you think New Yorkers have to be to believe that this congestion pricing decision wasn't politically motivated?" a reporter asked.

Hochul then gave an answer about how worried she became about congestion pricing based on conversations she's having in Midtown diners that featured several curious pauses as she mentioned the hardships of people driving into the city from New Jersey—people who are technically not her constituents, unlike the millions of New Yorkers who take mass transit every single day. 

Governor Hochul: I will never think that the voters and constituents in New York are stupid. Those are your words. Never mine. All I know is, I encourage you to go to the next diner with me, and I'll probably be there Monday morning, sit with me and watch the people come over and thank me. That's all I need to know. That is all I need to know. And if they were saying, "We love the idea of paying more money to come into this diner because I live outside another borough, and I'm not taking the subway today." You know, I haven't heard anyone say that. I've not heard a single small business owner say, "I'm really looking forward to my New Jersey [pause] my New Jersey customers"—The hardware store that was featured in the news just a couple days ago, the owner who says it's going to increase the cost of deliveries, "I'm going to have to pass it on to my constituents. And my New Jersey [pause] customers are already saying they're not going to come." That's real stress and real pain, and that is all that matters to me. 

Asked to name the diners she has frequented in recent days, Hochul named several that are all very close to Grand Central Terminal, including one, Pershing Square Cafe, that is literally across the street from the train station.

"Oh, yeah, Comfort Diner, used to be my favorite. And then I now go to the Townhouse Diner. There's also one on 42nd, it's a little fancier, the Pershing Square," Hochul said. "I wouldn't consider that a diner, but that owner at Pershing Square Cafe, is very happy. Yeah I was with my husband there, probably Wednesday morning."

(Hochul may be taking transit-infrastructure decision-making inspiration from her predecessor, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who once claimed that he upended the MTA's L train tunnel repair project because a business owner grabbed him by the lapel.)

While Hochul also mentioned security guards and nurses who drive into the congestion zone late at night because they are afraid of the transit system or because they don't have many other options, she did not mention that the tolls for these drivers would be significantly less—$3.75—than the $15 toll during rush hours (nor did anyone at the press conference point out that there are not many people who do this.)

When the governor was asked if she was committed to letting the MTA board do their jobs and vote on her proposal, she answered, "We've already examined all this, and well, it's not necessary for them to take action. Either way, this is a temporary pause."

After she was pressed on this, Hochul said, "It is not necessary to go for a vote. It is not necessary…It is not required I assure you."

The governor’s assurances notwithstanding, many people, including good government groups, at least one state senator, and one member of the MTA board itself, do not seem so certain. (Midori Valdivia, a voting board member who was appointed by the mayor, told Hell Gate on Wednesday that she believes the MTA board should weigh in on the governor's decision: "As I understand it, the MTA board members have purview on the future of congestion pricing, including any significant delays or pauses.")

Hochul insisted that she and the legislative leaders "gave a lot of thought to this," and that she is committed to working with them now through the end of the year, up to the beginning of the next session in 2025. (State lawmakers are headed home Friday night.) "No one can question my commitment to the MTA," Hochul said, because she helped save it in 2023 with billions in dedicated funding.

What about all the environmental advocates, safe streets advocates, businesses groups and activists who worked to make congestion pricing happen?

"I understand there's a lot of passion behind this. I'm an environmentalist," Hochul explained. "I understand how important this is to people. What I say to them is, we're going to continue working to mitigate congestion in the city. This is on a temporary pause that the mechanics and the operations are in place."

Hochul also said she cared about getting rid of congestion, because New York City has an awful lot of it.

"Congestion is a problem in places more than just in Manhattan. Have you've been to Brooklyn lately? Queens? These are places where it is tough to get around," Hochul said. "We need a smart strategy, and I don't want to wait until gets—I wouldn't even want to wait another year. Why don't we start taking steps now to address the issue of congestion?"

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