Jun 5, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Fugheddaboudit! New York dumps congestion pricing

Illustration of the Statue of Liberty holding a stop sign

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

The dramatic and unexpected demise of a plan to charge $15-a-car to drive in Manhattan below 60th Street ultimately came down to two red-hot electoral issues: inflation and crime.

  • Some New Yorkers and New Jerseyans rebelled at the idea of yet another ungodly fee for the privilege of going to work — and they don't trust the subways and other public transit to keep them safe.

Why it matters: What would have been the most consequential and ambitious urban transportation experiment in the nation has been derailed by some of the same fear-and-pocketbook issues that are likely to loom large in this fall's elections.

  • It seemed perfect on paper: A plan to reduce traffic and pollution in midtown Manhattan while raising $1 billion a year for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).
  • But it was met with a flaming-pitchforks revolt by the people who would have paid the tolls.

Driving the news: In what the New York Times called a "stunning 11th-hour shift," New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Wednesday an "indefinite pause" for the congestion pricing plan that was set to take effect on June 30.

  • Hochul cited "too many unintended consequences" and called the proposed fees "an obstacle to our economic recovery."
  • "Let's be real: A $15 charge may not seem like a lot to someone who has the means, but it can break the budget of a hardworking middle-class household," Hochul said.

The proposed fees were supposed to knock out 100,000 of the 700,000 vehicles that enter Manhattan's central business district daily.

  • All the equipment needed to start charging drivers based on their license plates and E-ZPass tolling tags was set up and ready to go.

What they're saying: "I'm so excited. I'm so happy," Susan Lee, president of New Yorkers Against Congestion Pricing, told Axios Wednesday afternoon.

  • "A lot of working-class families, they're like, 'We don't drive for the sake of driving, and the subways aren't safe or they're not reliable.'"
  • In Chinatown, where Lee lives, "a lot of small business owners told me they worried about the costs" of goods once trucks had to pay $24-$36 to make a delivery downtown.

The other side: "It's certainly disappointing," Sarah Kaufman, director of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation, told Axios.

  • "It does not bode well for the city and the planet if we can't regulate the use of personal vehicles in the densest transit environment in the country."
  • "There's a lot of speculation that this would increase the cost of goods because there would be increased truck fees," she added. "However, trucks are sitting in traffic right now, and the delays caused by congestion are still being passed on to their customers."

"Delaying congestion pricing will only hurt millions of transit riders relying on improvements and hinder the economic success of our broader region," Kate Slevin, executive vice president of the Regional Plan Association, said in a statement.

  • Rep. Jerry Nadler, a Democrat whose district lies largely in the congestion pricing zone, agreed. "Congestion pricing is crucial for delivering the capital improvements necessary to make the MTA more reliable," he said in a statement Wednesday.

Between the lines: Electoral politics, the economic and logistical insanity of living in New York, and the daily drumbeat of horrific stories about subway crime all helped doom congestion pricing.

  • Hochul's prior endorsement of congestion pricing prompted critics to accuse her of flip-flopping for the sake of helping Democrats at the ballot box this November.
  • Housing, child care and transportation costs in New York City are already so high that half the city's families need government assistance to get by, per a recent United Way report.
  • Widely publicized subway shootings and other mayhem have created the perception that public transit isn't safe — even prompting Hochul to send in the National Guard to police the subway system.

By the numbers: A Siena College poll in April found that New Yorkers of all political parties opposed the MTA's congestion pricing toll plan, 63%-25%.

  • 14% said they'd continue to drive in the city and pay the toll if it were implemented.
  • 17% said they'd find other ways to get around Manhattan.

Where it stands: There are still several lawsuits against congestion pricing — including one from New Jersey — amid claims that the tolls would merely shift traffic to poorer neighborhoods.

  • The lawsuit filed by Lee's group — New Yorkers Against Congestion Pricing — includes a plaintiff who uses music therapy to work with disabled students.
  • "She was like, 'Susan, I have to schlep my instruments all around the city,'" Lee said. "If that tax was to be implemented, I wouldn't be able to drive anywhere."
  • Lee's group is "still pursuing the lawsuit because we do want an environmental impact statement" on congestion pricing, in case the idea is revived, she said.

Yes, but: Hochul has proposed a tax on New York businesses to replace the revenue that would have come from the tolls — something that could prove equally contentious.

What's next: Several judges are expected to weigh in this month on the lawsuits against congestion pricing.

  • And Hochul left the door open to resurrecting the proposal — presumably, after the election.
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