Swelling Outrage over Congestion Pricing “Pause”

“There is an organized rider movement growing every day, and nothing grows it like crises like the governor just created.”

In December 2023, Gov. Kathy Hochul joined public transit advocates and environmentalists at a rally in Union Square in support of congestion pricing. photo: Don Pollard/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

In December 2023, Gov. Kathy Hochul joined public transit advocates and environmentalists at a rally in Union Square in support of congestion pricing. photo: Don Pollard/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

At the Global Economic Summit in late May, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) talked about New York City’s congestion pricing program, which was set to launch on June 30. The program would have imposed a $15 toll on most cars entering Manhattan south of 60th Street.

The $1 billion generated annually by the program would “fund large-scale projects that make public transit faster and more accessible,” Hochul said. “That’s key because we’ll never change people’s habits if we don’t offer safe, reliable alternatives to driving that work for everyone.”

Hochul announced on June 5 that she would “indefinitely pause” the program. The reversal deals a short-term blow to the movement for better transit and train service in the US. But it also illustrates the strength of the pro-trains and transit movement. And it shows the vital role played by organizations like the Alliance that are building grassroots support for the kind of “safe, reliable alternatives to driving” that Hochul claimed to support.

A New York Times account noted the “swelling outrage” over Hochul’s decision. It also described a broad-based coalition of organizations that are exploring legal responses. The coalition includes a business group, The Partnership for New York City, as well as transportation groups like the Riders Alliance and environmental groups like the New York League of Conservation Voters.

This coalition is considering potential legal angles of attack. One is based on the language of the 2019 law that created the congestion pricing program, which instructed MTA to impose tolls on vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th Street. Another focuses on New York’s climate law, under which Hochul is obligated to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

New York City Comptroller Brad Lander said in a rally of transit advocates on Wednesday that “we are here to make it clear that if congestion pricing is not implemented as mandated on June 30th, we are ready and able to take action.” Coalition members will decide on how to move forward after the MTA board’s meeting on June 26.

Meanwhile, Streetsblog reported that state and local politicians and MTA board members are being flooded with pro-congestion pricing calls and emails. A state senator from Brooklyn, Jabari Brisport, received about 150 calls in just two days about the issue. “It’s mass movements like these that are key to making sure that things can happen,” Brisport said. “I think that if all that pressure from the outside hadn’t come in, we would’ve been in a very different spot at the end.”

A revolt against Hochul’s decision is also brewing in Congress, where members who represent the New York region have weighed in with sharp criticisms. Rep. Richie Torres (D), for example, called it “politically, substantively a disaster,” and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) called it “malpractice.”

But Hochul also has defenders in high places, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) and Sen. Cory Booker (NJ), both Democrats. Booker said “there’s other ways to achieve climate goals besides punishing New Jersey,” and Gillibrand said that Hochul made the right decision. “We can make sure we have clean air in New York City, and there’s ways to do it,” she said.

The outcome of this struggle is uncertain, but it’s clear that car culture—and the needs and priorities of drivers—still have a fierce grip on our politics. It’s also clear that there will be many similar struggles over the coming years, as trains and transit offer good, affordable alternatives to the status quo.

We need to be ready.​

Lost Opportunities

Congestion pricing serves multiple goals. Most obviously, it takes cars off the road.

About 1 million New Yorkers drive to work or take a carpool. Nearly 2 million take transit. Roughly 700,000 vehicles enter Midtown and Lower Manhattan each weekday. New York’s program was expected to cut that number by 17%, or about 120,000 cars.

The revenue generated by congestion pricing was designed to fund overdue upgrades to the city’s train and transit systems. Gothamist reported that delays on the city’s subway trains in early 2024 increased about 30% over early 2023, mainly because of issues with old infrastructure and equipment.

The program would have invested in new signaling systems, new subway service to East Harlem, new railcars, bridge repairs and track upgrades, and better access to stations for people with disabilities. By law, $12 billion of the $15 billion capital program that the program was supposed to fund would go to the subway and bus systems. The Metro-North and Long Island Railroad commuter-train systems would receive $1.5 billion each.

Hochul said there are other possibilities for funding the planned upgrades. But the state legislature ended its session last week without agreeing on anything. And the main idea floated by Hochul—a new business tax—went nowhere. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has said that, in the absence of the new funding, it plans to prioritize the system’s “most basic and urgent needs.”

Reverse Robin Hood

Transit and environmental advocates are galled and galvanized not only by Hochul’s last-minute timing but her lack of transparency. Her stated reasons for the about-face don’t add up.

Mainly, Hochul describes the decision in terms of supporting New York’s economy and helping of low- and middle-income working people. “I, as the governor,” she said in a press conference last week, “have a real pulse on what New Yorkers are thinking.” She cited conversations with customers in local diners as evidence. And in a video announcing the decision, she talked about how bodega workers would suffer.

But an analysis conducted for the New York Times found that the average income of car commuters who would pay the toll is $181,000, while about 1% of drivers who work in the toll zone make less than $50,000 annually. If Hochul’s reversal causes the MTA to raise transit fares to cover operating costs—which is a real possibility—then low- and moderate-income people who use transit to get to work (i.e., a solid majority) will subsidize affluent suburban commuters.

Last week Politico reported a more likely reason for Hochul’s move: pressure from Democratic leadership in Congress. Congestion pricing is unpopular in the New York suburbs where Democrats hope to pick up House seats in the elections this fall. Pausing the program will help neutralize the issue among those voters.

Another publication, The Lever, noted that the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association had donated nearly $93,000 to Hochul’s campaigns since 2018. The group planned a reception to honor Hochul on June 11, calling her “a staunch supporter of our industry.” Hochul backed out of the event after announcing her decision on congestion pricing.

Building the Movement

The setback in New York is especially bitter because it echoes the fate of the Gateway Project. In 2010, New Jersey’s former governor, Republican Chris Christie, canceled the plan to build a train tunnel under the Hudson River. Work on the tunnel was already underway.

The decision “packed a wallop for the elected officials and transit advocates who spent most of the last two decades cobbling together the design for the tunnel,’ the New York Times reported. The $16 billion project is moving forward under the Biden administration, but the delay has been costly. The expected completion date is 2035. Meanwhile, “the economies of New Jersey, New York and the rest of the nation rely in no small part on a pair of broken-down, century-old tunnels strained to capacity that create a transit bottleneck for the entire Eastern Seaboard,” one analyst noted.

The New York region’s outsized impact on what happens nationally can cut both ways, though. The delay in the Gateway project will slow train traffic along the East Coast for a decade or more. But the movement in opposition to Robert Moses’ plans for a highway through Greenwich Village led to Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of American Cities—a seminal text in the movement for less car-dependent, more humane, more livable communities.

So, what happens in New York matters nationally. And Hochul got it exactly right in late May at the Global Economic Summit, before she reversed herself. The stakes were high, she said, because “expanded train service or an extra subway stop can actually change the trajectory of someone’s life. That’s powerful. That’s what cities are meant to do.”

Hopefully, the work of creating cities like that just got a big boost from Hochul. Advocates for trains and transit “feel robbed,” as a spokesman for Riders Alliance said. “There is an organized rider movement growing every day, and nothing grows it like crises like the governor just created.”

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