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MTA Head Subtly Acknowledges How Much Hochul’s Congestion Pricing Flip-Flop Fucked Over Transit Riders

Pointing to Governor Hochul's "political crisis," MTA CEO Janno Lieber said the agency will have to "reprioritize, resequence, and shrink" repairs and improvements.

Janno Lieber at the podium at MTA headquarters.

MTA CEO and Chair Janno Lieber during Monday’s press conference (Hell Gate)

In his first public comments since Governor Kathy Hochul blew a $15 billion hole in his budget by canceling the June 30 start date of congestion pricing, the head of the MTA did little to dispel the notion that the governor improperly interfered with what is supposed to be an independent public authority, and promised that the agency would do its best to "reprioritize, resequence, and shrink" the repairs and projects congestion pricing was supposed to pay for, while minimizing the very real pain riders will feel.

"It may feel right now, like things are a little crazy, and even that there's a crisis," Janno Lieber told reporters at a press conference at MTA headquarters on Monday. "But we need to stay focused so that we can maximize the situation for our riders. They are our focus right now."

He added, "Everybody knows that no matter what—political crisis, pandemic, massive weather event, our work at the MTA continues."

Monday's press conference came with very little notice to reporters. Was Lieber quitting? Was he trying to extract the maximum amount of political leverage out of the situation? Was he literally on the phone with the governor in the moments leading up to his appearance, demanding concessions of some kind? 

While Lieber’s address was cloaked in the steady, get-on-with-it idiom of an operations manager, the message, as far as that grey language allowed, was plain: The list of repairs and improvements the MTA can contemplate will have to "shrink" as a direct result of the governor’s decision, and though MTA officials will try to "squeeze" some money out of what’s left to preserve accessibility upgrades, those are on the chopping block as well. The billions in time-sensitive, federal grants that the MTA was supposed to get? Those are in jeopardy too. "We don't want to lose that funding, although there are some real complexities right now," he said. 

Lieber sidestepped a question about whether he had thought about tendering his resignation ("It's not my nature to walk or to quit") and refused to say much else about his interactions with the governor ("I don't want to characterize private conversations with the governor. I found out about her final decision, you know, like the night before"). But the head of the MTA notably did not offer the governor any cover for her decision, reminded the crowd that 90 percent of people who enter Lower Manhattan use mass transit, and pointed out that New York City's streets are more congested than they have ever been: "We need to be honest," he said. "Traffic is only getting worse."

He also acknowledged that there was much speculation as to how, exactly, the governor could so brazenly endanger the future of mass transit in New York City by making a decision so nakedly rooted in politics (Diner customers from New Jersey??) and one that appears to violate the 2019 state law that clearly states that New York State and the MTA "shall" implement congestion pricing. The actual mechanism for this, according to Lieber, is that Hochul is refusing to have her State Department of Transportation commissioner sign a piece of paper—the Value Pricing Pilot Program application—that must be issued and approved by the federal DOT and signed by the MTA, the state DOT, and the City DOT before the program has full federal approval.

"The federal approval is what's needed in order to initiate congestion pricing. The governor has been very upfront about the fact that that ain't coming at this time from the state of New York, they're not going to sign off on it, and therefore we're stuck," Lieber said. "But we are still, everybody at the MTA Board recognizes that we're still subject to the state law that says congestion pricing needs to be implemented. It's just at this moment, the mechanism to get it done, the federal approval that is required, can't be obtained."

Will the MTA Board—which again, has a fiduciary duty to the MTA, gave the congestion pricing plan its final vote of approval, and is supposed to independently govern the MTA, per state law—do anything about this?

"I anticipate the status of this application and this whole issue about signing on to the federal program will be a topic of discussion at this month's board meeting," Leiber said. "Because it is something that my board is intensely focused on." The MTA board's committees meet on June 24, followed by a full board meeting on June 26.

The governor's office has not responded to our questions about today's press conference. Earlier today, at an unrelated event in the Bronx, Hochul insisted she supported congestion pricing—something she had left out of her previous comments last week—and said she'd find the $15 billion somehow.

"To assume that the only funding source had to be congestion pricing shows a lack of imagination about understanding other opportunities to fund these projects," Hochul said.

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