Congestion pricing was set to begin later this month. Credit: poludziber

On Wednesday, Governor Kathy Hochul shocked the urban planning and transit advocates, lawmakers, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s own board by announcing the indefinite postponement of the congestion pricing plan that would generally charge drivers $15 for coming into Manhattan below 60th Street.

After years of talk, organizing, legislative back-and-forth, public comment, community input, hashing out structure and implementation, and fending off multiple lawsuits, the initiative was finally set to go into effect on June 30, making NYC the first municipality in the country to enact such a program. Now, that plan is on ice.

There are the immediate consequences to this, of course, but the more acute ones are the compounding long-term repercussions. The revenue generated by the plan is meant to go into the MTA for both capital improvements and running existing service, on subways, buses, and light rail. In fact, this was supposed to be the largest funding source for the agency’s yearslong $51.5 billion capital program.

Among the earmarks is money for new signal technology in the subways, mainly the implementation of the modern Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) system that allows trains to move faster and more efficiently instead of relying on an ancient signal process that relies on literal light bulbs. The money would also pay for making our dreadfully inaccessible stations more open for people with disabilities, purchasing additional train cars, and extending the Second Avenue line.

black and silver train in train station
Congestion pricing was supposed to help pay for some subway upgrades. Credit: Maxime LEVREL

MTA leaders had already scaled back some plans as multiple lawsuits threatened the program, but they were still relying on this cash for a series of pretty critical maintenance and improvement priorities, and having it postponed one month out means that cash probably isn’t coming now from any other source. The state budget is long finished, the legislature basically failed to pass anything particularly substantive in the remainder of the session, and the odds that they’re going to come in with some kind of infusion now are fundamentally null.

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of facing a layoff right as you were planning some substantive and perhaps critical personal expenditures, you know that the sudden disappearance of a planned revenue stream can be destabilizing and disorienting. Do you move things around to infill, leaving less for everything? Do you drop certain things altogether and prioritize some of the most important spending? So, will the MTA improve signals but leave older and more failure-prone train cars in place, or vice versa?

Let’s not forget that the program had two goals: to generate revenue and, as the name suggests, reduce vehicular congestion and the increased smog and risk of motor vehicle crashes that it brings. While there was some concern that the initiative would merely reroute through-traffic to other parts of the city, particularly to the South Bronx, in the case of traffic that was intended to culminate in Manhattan’s central business district — commuters, people that are coming into the city from New Jersey or the NYC suburbs to dine and see shows, as well as tourists — the plan would provide an added incentive to take the ‘new and improved’ public transit. No more, at least for now.

So, now we don’t get transit infrastructure improvements or congestion reduction and instead get MTA funding chaos, which might leave you wondering what exactly Hochul was thinking. In her announcement, she took the angle of economic concern, pointing out cost-of-living increases over the past couple of years as well as lingering effects of the COVID pandemic. Implementing congestion pricing “risks too many unintended consequences for New Yorkers at this time,” she said.

She did not mention, but was almost certainly thinking about, recent polls showing that the program was very unpopular, unsurprisingly, with people in the NYC suburbs in particular, with statewide unpopularity of about 64%. Democrats have gotten slaughtered on Long Island over the past several years, and NY’s GOP victories are the only reason that Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries is not currently House Speaker. It’s likely that Democratic operatives and lawmakers leaned on her behind the scenes to stop the program at an electorally critical moment.

Now, there are a few additional things that Hochul also left out. Inflation, while climbing precipitously from roughly early 2021 to mid-2022, has since leveled off. Prices haven’t come back down to pre-pandemic levels, but they also haven’t significantly climbed for several months, during which time unemployment has hit record lows and real wages have increased. These sunny economic indicators have clashed with public perceptions driven by the spiraling costs of key expenditures like childcare and rent and, as I’ve long argued, the dissolution of Covid-era government social programs to generate what some people are calling the “vibe-cession,” or the sense that the economy is far worse than it is on paper.

The vibecession is real, but also nothing about this situation has substantively shifted in the last month, from when congestion pricing was a go to its indefinite postponement now. Also, to state something of a political truism, people tend to hate consequential new government programs that even have the whiff of added costs or taxes as they’re being debated or implemented, but often come to appreciate them quickly after they’re up and running. That’s true even for congestion pricing itself; there was much teeth-gnashing in London about their own program, but plenty there are happy with the improvements the initiative has enabled to their public transit.

Many are wondering if this move is politically considering this November’s House races. Credit: Ibrahim Boran

With congestion pricing set to go into effect at the end of this month, there would have been roughly four months of it before the November election, which I’d argue is plenty of time for voters to either begin to forget about it altogether or appreciate some of its benefits. Instead, pushing it back now almost certainly means an intent to push it back past the election, which will further scramble the MTA’s finances and, in my view, anger some New Yorkers who would have benefited from the transit improvements, even if they didn’t know how those improvements were being funded.

Will this become one of those initiatives that languishes through indefinite delays and is at some point functionally dead? I don’t know. Perhaps today we witnessed the first step on a path towards the killing of the program altogether. I hope not, but that will only be the case if New Yorkers can look past some of the fearmongering around it and come to appreciate the benefits that congestion pricing might bring.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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