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Journal News: Hochul wants to delay congestion pricing days before start: What's behind the about-face?

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Wednesday she's putting on hold a controversial $15 toll on Manhattan drivers that was set to start this month out of concern for its impact on struggling New Yorkers and New York City's post-pandemic recovery.

The congestion-pricing toll was due to begin on June 30 after years of planning, even as several lawsuits by New Jersey and other opponents are being waged to try to stop it. The toll resembles those imposed by London and several other major cities and is intended to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution while raising money for the region's mass transit system.

Despite her past support for the toll, Hochul said in a 10-minute video address that she decided it would add an unfair burden to those already squeezed by the high cost of living. She also invoked the city's business climate and "delicate recovery," saying it has rebounded since the pandemic but could slide if workers and visitors decide to stay home because of the toll.

"This decision is about doing what's right for the people who make our city thrive," Hochul said.

Word of her plans had leaked out in advance, with both The New York Times and Politico reporting that she was seeking to delay implementation of the toll. One factor cited by both publications was concern that a public backlash against the unpopular plan could hurt Democrats in races this fall in battleground House districts in New York City's suburbs.

Hochul dismissed speculation about ulterior motives in her recorded speech, saying her only reasons for the indefinite pause were those she outlined: concerns about New York's affordability and the city's economic recovery.

She said she continues to support the concept of congestion pricing, and will seek other ways to meet its goals and to raise more revenue for the transit system. She gave no timetable for reviving the plan, which she said had faced the prospect of delay anyway because of the pending court cases against it.

"I remain committed to these investments in public transit," Hochul said.

Supporters of NYC congestion pricing decry Hochul's about-face

Supporters of congestion pricing were aghast, seemingly unaware that Hochul was pulling the plug just weeks before the toll was set to begin. Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, said she was "shocked and dismayed that the governor is turning her back on congestion pricing."

"We cannot drive our way out of the climate crisis — and we shouldn’t let a small number of drivers who refuse to take mass transit in the most transit-rich region of the country dictate transportation policy," Tighe said in a statement. 

Advocates suggested the pause would delay badly needed capital improvements on subways and rails by eliminating a vital funding source.

“Delaying congestion pricing will only hurt millions of transit riders relying on improvements and hinder the economic success of our broader region,” said Kate Slevin, the executive vice president of the Regional Plan Association. “It means delays on critical transit projects like the faster service on the A/C line, station upgrades and bus electrification along with all the jobs that they bring. This move is a total betrayal of New Yorkers and our climate.”

The Riders Alliance, a non-profit that advocates for subway and bus riders, accused Hochul of kowtowing to the suburbs.

“This is a misguided political maneuver to court suburban voters at the cost of alienating millions of New Yorkers who fought for years to secured $15B in dedicated funding to improve our transit,” the alliance said in an email to members sent Wednesday afternoon.

In her speech, Hochul explained her change of heart by saying that circumstances had changed since state lawmakers and then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo set the wheels in motion for congestion pricing in 2019. The following year, she pointed out, New York City was upended by a pandemic that shows lasting effects to this day, with office vacancy rates of more than 20% in Manhattan and many workers commuting just a few days a week.

The toll, which would be paid by drivers entering Manhattan at or below 60th Street, was meant to raise revenue for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs New York City's subways and buses and two commuter railroads that serve the suburbs.

The money would pay for capital improvements — the MTA estimated it would generate roughly $1 billion a year.

Toll faced bipartisan opposition

A slew of suburban lawmakers from both parties had opposed the planned toll as a large expense for their constituents who drive to work in Manhattan. Rep. Mike Lawler, a Rockland County Republican, had co-sponsored a bill with Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey to try to block it. Rep. Pat Ryan, an Ulster County Democrat, had urged exemptions for emergency workers and others and demanded the MTA hold hearings in the Hudson Valley to hear directly from drivers.

On Wednesday, Lawler blasted Hochul's decision to delay the toll as an "election-year stunt" and said the plan "needs to be ended, not simply delayed.”

“Almost five months to the day before Election Day, Governor Hochul has suddenly realized how bad congestion pricing is polling in the suburbs and in New York City,” Lawler said.

Ryan cheered Hochul's decision and attributed it to pressure he and Hudson Valley families exerted for the last year.

“Now it's time to get to work on a plan that actually makes sense for the entire state, not just New York City, including commitments to significant service additions and meaningful discounts for public servants," Ryan said in a statement. "I’ll continue to stand up to anyone, regardless of party, who tries to rip off hard-working Hudson Valley families.”

Gottheimer also celebrated Hochul's decision, saying: “We threw the kitchen sink at New York — and then some — and got it done. Even when some said the fight was over, we kept going. Well today, Jersey families, their wallets, and the environment won big. As I always say, don’t mess with Jersey.”

Rockland County filed one of the lawsuits in opposition to congestion pricing. On Wednesday, Rockland County Executive Ed Day, a Republican, reacted to the Democratic governor's decision by renewing his criticism of the toll plan and vowing to fight if it returns.

"Governor Kathy Hochul should not just pause this plan but eliminate it entirely," Day said. "If not, we will continue our legal fight, alongside my colleagues in government, on behalf of families we serve who do not deserve another unnecessary tax.”

What were the details of the toll?

The $15 toll was intended for car drivers with E-ZPass who enter the central business district between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. on weekends.

Those without E-ZPass were to be billed by mail and pay more: $22.50 per trip. Truck drivers would have paid $24 to $54, depending on the truck size and whether the driver has E-ZPass.

Charges would have been much lower during overnight hours, and drivers who already were charged to enter the toll zone through one of four tunnels will get discounts on the congestion charge.