Gov. Kathy Hochul cited the high cost of living in New York City as a reason to delay the implementation of congestion pricing. Credit: Newsday

Gov. Kathy Hochul stunned congestion pricing supporters and opponents Wednesday by abruptly pulling the plug on the controversial tolling plan just three weeks before it was set to take effect.

After five years of planning and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on studying, installing and defending the MTA’s Central Business District Tolling Program from legal challenges, the potential death blow to congestion pricing came not from one of its myriad fierce opponents — many of whom reside on Long Island — but from someone who had been one of its staunchest advocates.

On Wednesday, Hochul called on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to “indefinitely pause” congestion pricing, citing concerns over affordability and the potential for the new tolls to hamper Manhattan’s economic recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Circumstances have changed and we must respond to the facts on the ground — not from the rhetoric from five years ago,” Hochul said in a recorded video released Wednesday morning. “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.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Gov. Kathy Hochul on Wednesday directed the MTA to "indefinitely pause" its congestion pricing plan, which was set to take effect on June 30 and would have charged most vehicles $15 for driving below 60th Street in Manhattan during peak periods.
  • After supporting congestion pricing for years, Hochul said she now believes it "risks too many unintended consequences," including harming New Yorkers struggling to pay expenses and hampering Manhattan's post-COVID economic recovery.
  • While congestion pricing opponents applauded Hochul for listening to New Yorkers who rejected the new tolls as a cash grab, environmentalists and transit advocates called her decision a politically motivated betrayal.

Less than a year ago, Hochul celebrated New York “setting the standard right here, in real time, for how we can achieve cleaner air, safer streets and better transit” through congestion pricing.

Although she called it just a “pause” to the plan, Hochul gave no indication when it would be back. She said the state would find “other ways” to address the goals of congestion pricing and is “currently exploring other funding sources” to make up for the projected $1 billion in annual toll revenue being relied upon by the MTA. 

The MTA has spent $507 million to design and install the new toll system equipment, which now hovers over the streets around Manhattan.

The next step is for the MTA board, controlled by the governor’s appointees, to vote to delay congestion pricing, a Hochul administration source said.

Hochul said she would “direct” the MTA to put congestion pricing on hold — but the board still would have to vote to do so. As for filling the revenue gap, the governor doesn’t necessarily need the State Legislature to act. She could tap into New York’s “Rainy Day” reserve, which Hochul has built up over recent years and now totals about $20 billion.

MTA Board members caught off guard

But some MTA officials questioned if Hochul could unilaterally stop congestion pricing, which the transit authority formally approved in March and says it needs to fund billions of dollars in ongoing and planned infrastructure projects, including on the Long Island Rail Road.

“We haven’t got a clear explanation, other than the governor is asking us not to do it. But, you know, what is her authority?” MTA Board member Marc Herbst, who represents Suffolk County, said in an interview. “We don’t have the answers yet.”

MTA officials on Wednesday referred all questions about congestion pricing to Hochul’s office. Several MTA Board members interviewed Wednesday said they were caught off guard by Hochul’s announcement and were unclear about whether they'd have to sign off on it. The MTA Board is not scheduled to meet again until June 26, four days before congestion pricing was set to launch.

Asked about what it would take to make Hochul’s decision official, MTA Board member David Mack — Nassau’s representative on the board and the only member to vote against congestion pricing — said Wednesday, “We did not hear anything yet.”

But, Mack added, “I think everyone will respect the governor’s opinion.”

Signed into state law in 2019, congestion pricing would have charged most vehicles $15 for driving below 60th Street in Manhattan during peak hours — a policy  supporters said would have reduced traffic, improved air quality and generated revenue to support transit infrastructure investments. Although several lawsuits — including one filed by the Town of Hempstead — sought to halt or delay the program, MTA officials remained confident they would be able to begin charging the tolls on June 30.

The transit agency had even scheduled the first in a series of public webinars about congestion pricing for Wednesday at 11 a.m. Fifteen minutes before it was set to start, the MTA posted a message on its website saying it was “postponing this webinar series until further notice.”

Congestion pricing unpopular on LI

Hochul’s decision was celebrated by congestion pricing opponents and cast as a betrayal by supporters. But many on both sides agreed it was politically motivated, coming during a contentious election season in which congestion pricing has been seen as a vulnerability for many downstate suburban Democrats. In a Newsday/Siena College poll released in November, 72% of Long Island voters said they opposed congestion pricing.

Rachel Fauss, of Reinvent Albany, a good-government group that supported congestion pricing, called Hochul’s decision, coming near the end of the current state legislative session, “cynical, Albany at its worst.”

Ed Cox, state chairman of the New York Republican Party, simultaneously called it a “desperate move to buy votes” while saying Hochul, a Democrat, should scrap the plan altogether rather than just delay it.

Lisa Daglian, executive director of the MTA’s Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which includes the LIRR Commuter Council, said  with her decision, Hochul is “blowing holes” in the MTA’s future budgets and its forthcoming five-year Capital Program, which is expected to buy new LIRR trains, upgrade stations and refurbish corroded bridges. The MTA was counting on $1 billion in projected annual toll revenue to support $15 billion in bonds for the infrastructure investments.

“We are infuriated the delay might come for political reasons,” Daglian said in a statement, adding Hochul needs to “show some backbone.”

Addressing “cynics who question my motivation,” Hochul said she approached the decision “through one lens: What is best for New Yorkers?”

Even congestion pricing opponents, who heralded Hochul’s decision as a victory, criticized her for only now realizing the harm the new tolls would have done to working families.

“I think . . . particularly in the last 30 days, the governor has been receiving a lot of phone calls, a lot of emails from residents throughout this region in opposition to it,” said Hempstead Town Supervisor Donald X. Clavin Jr., a Republican who believes recent polling about congestion pricing factored into Hochul’s decision. “Probably, those negative numbers are affecting the governor’s popularity, as well.”

Hochul received backup from one key ally, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who agreed that, “We have to get it right.”

“I think if she’s looking at analyzing what other ways we can do it and how to do it correctly, I’m all for it,” Adams, a Democrat, said at a Staten Island event. “We have to make sure it’s not an undue burden to everyday New Yorkers. We have to make sure that it’s not going to impact our recovery.”

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