Less than a year before its projected starting date, the plan to raise $15 billion to improve public transit by tolling cars below 60th Street in Manhattan is in serious jeopardy. Governor Andrew Cuomo blamed the Trump administration, while federal officials have quietly washed their hands. Meanwhile, millions of metric tons of pollution are spewing from the tailpipes of motor vehicles trapped on New York City's clogged streets, and the guy who made the subways run better was just forced out of the MTA. What is happening?
I thought the state passed congestion pricing last year? What gives?
The congestion pricing law devised by Governor Cuomo and passed by the legislature wasn't exactly a blueprint for a tolling scheme as it was a commitment to make a blueprint. Driving below 60th Street in Manhattan (excluding the West Side Highway and the FDR) will incur a toll, and those tolls have to generate at least $1 billion a year in order to create $15 billion in bonds to fund the MTA. But most of the thornier details of congestion pricing—like how much those tolls will cost, and who, if anyone, will be exempt from them—must come from a six-person entity called the Traffic Mobility Review Board that doesn't exist yet, and doesn't have to provide those details until after November 15th, 2020. (More on them later.)
The MTA's Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (a.k.a. MTA Bridges and Tunnels) and the City's DOT began working on a series of traffic studies to figure out the best ways to implement the tolling and the impacts tolling will have on traffic and pollution, to gear up to start the tolls on January 1st, 2021. But all of this was before the federal government got cagey about giving their approval.
Why does the federal government get to weigh in if we want to toll our own roads?
"Any time you want to put tolls on roads that have received federal dollars you need to get permission from the US Department of Transportation, as a part of the National Environmental Policy Act process," said Lisa Daglian, the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. Daglian also led the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, and is familiar with the jurisdictional hurdles that transit agencies must clear. "The feds want a lot of information. They want to know what the effects are gonna be, not just on congestion or in the congestion zone, but where the traffic diversion is gonna go, what's this gonna mean for other neighborhoods, what this is gonna mean for the air quality," Daglian said.
The federal government needs that information to determine whether or not a project needs a shorter Environmental Assessment Statement or a much larger, more time-consuming Environmental Impact Statement that requires extensive public outreach. Last week, Politico reported that the federal government still had not provided the answer to that question. A full-scale EIS could take well over a year to complete.
Ken Lovett, a spokesperson for the MTA, said that agency officials met with their federal counterparts in Washington, D.C., on December 6th and offered to complete a full scale EIS.
"We were basically told not to, that they hadn’t decided what they wanted to do yet, and they didn’t want to send us down a path that we didn’t need to go down," Lovett said. "We couldn’t just move forward because there needs to be a notice of intent published in the federal register, and only the feds can do that, and we were told if we started without permission, any outreach we did would not count."
Is this just run-of-the-mill incompetence or is the Trump administration punishing New York's Sanctuary State status, like when they soaked us with SALT taxes and pulled the Trusted Traveler programs?
Governor Cuomo certainly seems to think it's the latter.
“It’s political extortion what they’re doing on the trusted traveler program, and I think you see this across the board,” Cuomo told reporters on Thursday, adding that he believed that the environmental review would be "perfunctory."
“I’m not holding my breath for them to approve congestion pricing," Cuomo said, ominously.
The Federal Department of Transportation did not respond to our request for comment.
Wait, I thought we already have a congestion pricing fee for cabs and for-hire vehicles below 96th Street. I've paid it! Did New York need federal approval for that?
No, because acccording to Daglian, it doesn't create any new tolling infrastructure, and applies to a specific group of vehicles that already must carry special licenses.
Welp, I guess New York City will just have to wait on those tolls, which means maybe I will start to think about buying that 1998 Outback station wagon to get to my tiny house upstate.
Unless you want to go back to the Summer of Hell, the MTA desperately needs the $15 billion from congestion pricing to fund its $50 billion capital plan, and they can't just borrow that money, because the MTA is up to its eyeballs in debt.
"Our concern has been that the MTA has been very clear that congestion pricing funds need to come first in terms of cash flow on the capital plan. They have to do any borrowing last, so that they can retire old debt before they start paying any new debt service (which is already projected to reach 20% of operating revenue by 2023). Congestion pricing is the largest source of revenue for the $50+ billion plan," said Rachael Fauss, who studies the agency for the good government group Reinvent Albany.
"In order to deliver on the fixes promised by the capital plan, the governor and his officials at the MTA need to ensure that the Traffic Mobility Review Board gets up and running ASAP and they work expeditiously with the feds to get any needed approvals for congestion pricing."
Who is on this magical board that determines all the important details for congestion pricing?
We don't know, because it doesn't exist yet. It's supposed to contain six members, five of them appointed by the governor, one of them by the mayor. The MTA is technically supposed to set the board up, but they haven't done that. The MTA is controlled by Governor Cuomo.
"We’ll have it when we have it. We’re well aware of it," Lovett, the MTA spokesperson said when asked when the MTA is going to roll out the board. "We’re still doing all the things we need to do in terms of various studies, in terms of moving forward on various issues." (Separately, the MTA's president has said, "Congestion pricing will happen.")
Politicians were so scared of being attached to specific congestion pricing toll amounts that the board isn't allowed to release their recommendations until November 15th, 2020, after the statewide elections. (Other transportation groups have released their own schemes for the tolls.) The details that the board comes up with will have a huge impact on the quality of life of New Yorkers. Good government groups wrote a letter to the MTA last November, asking the agency to ensure that they will be open to the public.
"The Medicaid review board, look that was just announced, a month, two months ago and it's six billions dollars," Daglian said, pointing to Cuomo's creation of a board of experts to solve another politically flammable issue. "This is a year away, it's $15 billion dollars, it's ultimately affecting nearly nine million daily riders and the entire region, plus the millions of people who drive in out and around the city who wanna know what their future is gonna hold. This board should be named, their work should start, it should be done in public, and everything the MTA can do to move the process along should happen."
"I've heard there's reticence to name this board because lobbying would begin immediately for the exclusions," Daglian added. The city's biggest police union, for example, has already demanded an exemption for its members.
One can only guess. The governor's office referred those questions to the MTA, which declined to comment on them.
"If I were running things I would push full speed ahead," said Charles Komanoff, a transportation economist, Hunter College professor, and staunch advocate for congestion pricing. "If the federal government does try to stop, block, slow, obstruct, then meet them in court. But keep pushing, and keep on emphasizing the benefits and the necessity of doing congestion pricing."
Komanoff suggested a tried and true Moses tactic: build first, let people enjoy the benefits, and dare the slower, more powerful entities to rip it out.
"Get momentum, install the mechanisms, get some facts on the ground. Maybe even get those tolls running for a few weeks and if there’s an injunction that forces you to stand down, well, maybe you have established, even in those first few weeks, this bountiful revenue stream and this palpable improvement in traffic."