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Profiles in Cowardice: Governor Hochul Executes Craven 11th-Hour Flip-Flop on Congestion Pricing

Governor Hochul's spine was last seen driving a Hummer on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Governor Kathy Hochul at a rally celebrating congestion pricing at a podium that reads "Cleaner air. Better transit. Less traffic."

Governor Kathy Hochul celebrating congestion pricing on June 27, 2023 (Marc A. Hermann / MTA)

"From time to time, leaders are called upon to envision a better future, be bold in the implementation and execution, and be undaunted by the opposition," Governor Kathy Hochul said at a rally to support congestion pricing back in December. Apparently, Kathy Hochul is not one of those leaders.

On Tuesday night, Politico and the New York Times both reported that Hochul is now trying to delay the implementation of congestion pricing, less than a month before it is supposed to take effect on June 30. It seems her plan goes beyond merely pushing back the date the tolls go into effect: Hochul wants to replace congestion pricing tolls—which were designed to raise $1 billion every year to fund the MTA—with some sort of tax on businesses. One potential sticking point? There are just two days left in the session, and the most obvious workarounds—replacing congestion pricing with some other tax, for example—would require legislative approval. [Update: At noon, Hochul announced in a pre-taped address that she was postponing congestion pricing.]

Here is what the governor is thinking, according to the Times:

But even as Ms. Hochul believes that congestion pricing is good environmental policy, she has concerns that the timing was less than ideal, according to a person familiar with her thinking. The governor feared that it might deter commuters from returning to the central business district, which has yet to fully recover from the pandemic.

Ms. Hochul’s gambit, if successful, could also help her fellow Democrats in the House who might otherwise face angry voters in an election year. But it would be a devastating blow to advocates and organizers who have worked for more than a decade to bring this change to New York City.

We've asked the governor's office if this is in fact what Governor Hochul is thinking, and will update this post if they respond. But assuming the Times is correct, let's examine her thought process.

"But even as Ms. Hochul believes that congestion pricing is good environmental policy, she has concerns that the timing was less than ideal, according to a person familiar with her thinking."

The "ideal" timing for congestion pricing might have been in 2017, after years of neglected subway maintenance resulted in the Summer of Hell, which stranded millions of commuters throughout the system and focused a beam of white-hot rage on our elected officials such that they were compelled to create the current congestion pricing law in 2019.

Or maybe the "ideal" timing for it was 2007, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg first pitched it, because if we had implemented congestion pricing then, New Yorkers could have saved ourselves billions of dollars and a combined 1,314,000,000 hours—150,000 years—of our lives, instead of sitting in traffic. 

But state lawmakers killed the 2007 plan. And Hochul's predecessor Andrew Cuomo baked in a political, ass-covering delay to the 2019 plan so that it wouldn't take effect until after the 2020 elections, but now here we are, four years later, and the new governor is talking about delaying it again.

If the congestion pricing initiatives in the U.K. and Sweden are any indication, tolling drivers to ease congestion and improve air quality will become popular in the months and years after it is implemented. But that's the future—a hazy concept for most politicians. Here in the present, people know the details of the plan that is about to be implemented, and they don't like them—it's what academics have started calling the "Valley of Death," that period of time before benefits to new laws or policies kick in, after which people love those new laws and policies that they previously hated.

Chart via Daniel Firth, via Streetsblog

The point here is that there is no "ideal time" to implement congestion pricing, politically speaking, and that it requires the tiniest kernel of courage, alluded to by Hochul back in December, that she is now willing to admit she does not possess.

"The governor feared that it might deter commuters from returning to the central business district, which has yet to fully recover from the pandemic."

Commuters into the central business district—Manhattan below 60th Street—take mass transit. Millions of them, every single day. According to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, just 1.5 percent of all commuters into the CBD will end up paying the congestion pricing fee. The majority of car commuters into Lower Manhattan are members of law enforcement—people who can afford to pay a few bucks to illegally park their personal vehicles in the most densely populated place in North America, so that they too can have faster commutes with less gridlock. 

What about New Yorkers living in transit deserts (places that are more than a half mile from mass transit) who drive into Manhattan for work? They find a way to take mass transit too—85 percent of them already do so. Just 5,200 New Yorkers who live more than a half mile from mass transit—representing 1.2 percent of all New Yorkers living in transit deserts and 0.06 percent of New York City's population—drive their cars into the CBD for work.

If you are surprised that this kind of granular data exists, it's because the MTA literally spent years compiling it as part of a federally mandated environmental review process.

"Ms. Hochul’s gambit, if successful, could also help her fellow Democrats in the House who might otherwise face angry voters in an election year." 

Perhaps the governor is concerned about a Siena poll released in April, showing that 63 percent of New York voters across the state, regardless of political party, do not support congestion pricing, while just 25 percent support it. However, that same survey revealed that 44 percent of the voters polled "don't go to Manhattan." 

We're not political analysts who live in Colorado, but here's some advice: Killing a years-in-the-making plan to fix mass transit, the mode of transportation that the vast majority of New Yorkers use, so you can appease a handful of union leaders, Eric Adams, the governor of New Jersey (reminder: that's a different state), Hakeem Jeffries, and Donald Fucking Trump, and killing it behind closed doors in the final hours of the legislative session, is not great politics. Maybe do something about the housing crisis instead?

As the good government group Reinvent Albany pointed out in a press release on Wednesday morning, "New York State Democrats agreed to repeal the Commuter Tax in 1999 in a cynical move to try to improve their electoral chances, and it didn’t work, and instead has cost the city billions."

"But it would be a devastating blow to advocates and organizers who have worked for more than a decade to bring this change to New York City."

No, stopping congestion pricing would be a blow to almost every single New Yorker—New Yorkers who ride the subways and buses who are sick of broken track signals and ancient train cars, New Yorkers who currently lose 117 hours every year because their bus or cab is stuck in traffic, New Yorkers who want to breathe cleaner air and not weave in and out of a sewer of honking cars when crossing the street. 

But if your method of commuting into New York City is a helicopter, who cares?

Update, 1:34 p.m: The Governor's Office has released the transcript of Hochul's remarks. Here's the heart of her speech:

So, let's talk about congestion pricing, which would impose a $15 charge on cars entering Midtown and below, beginning in just a few weeks. Now, it was enacted five years ago to achieve two essential goals: reduce traffic and emissions in New York City and provide a funding stream for much needed capital investments in public transit.

It was also enacted in a pre-pandemic period where workers were in the office five days a week, crime was at record lows and tourism was at record highs. Circumstances have changed and we must respond to the facts on the ground — not from the rhetoric from five years ago. So, after careful consideration, I have come to the difficult decision that implementing the planned congestion pricing system risks too many unintended consequences for New Yorkers at this time.

For that reason, I have directed the MTA to indefinitely pause the program. Now, I want to be clear. My team worked into the final hours to find a way to implement this because the goals of congestion pricing change — in terms of reducing traffic and pollution — are important. But hard-working New Yorkers are getting hammered on costs and they and the economic vitality of our City must be protected.

We cannot ignore the facts. Literally the year after the enactment of the law, New York City was the epicenter of the pandemic. It was the first and hardest hit of all U.S. Cities. Many predicted New York would not recover. Well, thanks to hard working and committed New Yorkers, those doomsayers have been proven wrong.

But while our recovery has been stronger and swifter than anyone imagined, it is by no means complete. And we cannot afford to undercut this momentum, and I won’t allow this delicate recovery to be jeopardized.

Anyone walking through midtown Manhattan or riding the subway, they have seen it: streets and train cars are crowded Tuesday to Thursday, but much less so on Monday and Friday. Office attendance is down compared to before the pandemic, with many workers only commuting-in two or three days a week at most. And Manhattan currently has a commercial vacancy rate of over 20 percent. 

This reduction in foot traffic has an enormous ripple effect, with fewer people patronizing restaurants, delis and dry cleaners. The idea behind congestion pricing is that it will encourage many current drivers to shift to public transit. 

But there is a third possibility that now poses a greater threat than it did at the program’s inception. Drivers can now choose to stay home altogether, telling employers they need to work fully remote again. Or they might just change their patterns and skip the visits to the City on a Saturday with their family or going out to the theater or a restaurant.

At a time when inflation is still cutting into New Yorkers’ hard earned wages, the concern is that many would do exactly that. Or that one more added cost would make residents rethink living or working here altogether, hurting our recovery even more. 

Let’s be real: a $15 charge may not mean a lot to someone who has the means, but it can break the budget of a working- or middle-class household. It puts the squeeze on the very people who make this City go: the teachers, first responders, small business workers, bodega owners. And given these financial pressures, I cannot add another burden to working- and middle-class New Yorkers – or create another obstacle to continued recovery.

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