Hill Dems bemoan New York congestion pricing about-face

By Corbin Hiar, Emma Dumain | 06/13/2024 06:51 AM EDT

The New York governor’s last-minute decision to halt the program — which offered a lifeline to the city’s aging transit system — is reverberating on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), seen at a House Rules Committee meeting in April, is among the Democrats who criticized New York Gov. Kathy Hochul's decision to delay on congestion pricing in Manhattan.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), seen at a House Rules Committee meeting in April, is among the Democrats who criticized New York Gov. Kathy Hochul's (D) decision to delay on congestion pricing in Manhattan. Francis Chung/POLITICO

Congressional Democrats on Wednesday were unsparing in their criticism of New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s decision to prevent congestion pricing in Manhattan, calling the fellow Democrat’s surprise move a “disaster” and “malpractice.”

The pricing system — years in the making — would have charged drivers $15 at peak hours to enter a zone from Central Park to the bottom of the island. It was seen as a way to reduce Manhattan’s gridlocked traffic and climate pollution while also providing a $15 billion lifeline to New York City’s aging transit system.

But Hochul prevented the launch of the closely watched climate program in a last-minute decision last week.


“It was as erratic and as chaotic and as arbitrary and capricious of a decision as I’ve ever seen in my career as an elected official,” said Rep. Richie Torres (D-N.Y.), whose district spans much of the Bronx, the New York City borough north of Manhattan. “It’s a disaster. It’s politically, substantively a disaster. There is no good that will come of it.”

“Politically, it’s malpractice,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), whose constituents live in the eastern Bronx and northern Queens. “In terms of climate, it’s just an awful decision.”

“I don’t know what the governor was thinking,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), a former car dealer who compared New York’s congestion pricing plan to Northern Virginia’s toll lanes, which were initially unpopular but are now an accepted part of the region’s transportation system.

“It’s like taxing cigarettes or alcohol,” he said. “You tax things you don’t like, and you incentivize things you do like. And we don’t like congestion.”

The governor’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment. But Hochul has argued the decision was necessary in light of the city’s slow recovery from the economic shock of the pandemic.

Hochul is not without her Democratic defenders. New York City Mayor Eric Adams urged New Yorkers to support the governor at his weekly Tuesday press conference.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said Wednesday that she thought the governor “made the right decision.”

“She had a lot of concerns that she wanted to iron out before she implemented the plan,” Gillibrand said, before downplaying the climate implications of the governor’s reversal. “We can make sure we have clean air in New York City, and there’s ways to do it. And I think she’s going to work on it.”

The move has put at risk the credit rating of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. That means the transit agency — in addition to losing a key source of expected funding — could soon have to pay more when it borrows funds for infrastructure improvements. If that leads to worse service, it would likely push more New Yorkers to drive, worsening the city’s congestion and enlarging its carbon footprint.

Nationally, the transportation sector is the largest single source of climate pollution, according to EPA data. New York’s congestion pricing plan was considered a U.S. test case for the system, which has been successfully implemented in London, Stockholm and Singapore.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) brushed off those statistics and suggested policymakers should join him in focusing on reducing emission from industrial agriculture.

“There’s other ways to achieve climate goals besides punishing New Jersey and making them pay,” he said.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat who represents a New Jersey district abutting upper Manhattan, said his constituents were “celebrating in the streets” when the “nurses and electricians and the hardworking folks … learned they were going to save 15 bucks a day.”

The longtime critic of congestion pricing also pointed to a study showing the proposal could cause trucks to pursue alternative routes to avoid the toll zone, concentrating tailpipe emissions in specific areas.

“Environmentalists and people in my district who were deeply concerned about the cancer-causing pollution that was going to plume into northern New Jersey, they were celebrating, too,” Gottheimer said.

Congestion pricing politics

Initial press reports indicated House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) urged the governor to reverse course, fearful it would hurt Democrats in competitive House races later this year.

If that was the plan, it may backfire. Republicans on Wednesday celebrated the governor’s move while openly speculating about her motivations for the about-face.

“I guess they did polling, and they realized that their candidates’ poll numbers are in the dumpster,” said Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-N.Y.), a first-term member of Congress from Long Island running in a tight reelection race. “If they want to ignite that dumpster and light it on fire, then they should go through with congestion pricing.”

Jeffries, who represents northern Brooklyn all the way down to the Coney Island waterfront, is on track to become speaker next year if Democrats win back control of the House. He cannot afford to alienate progressives, inside both his caucus and the environmental advocacy community.

A source close to Jeffries, speaking on condition of anonymity to share internal conversations, denied that the minority leader initiated a conversation with the governor calling for the pause and said that Jeffries was agnostic on the policy.

Andy Eichar, a Jeffries spokesperson, said in a statement that the leader has for years “maintained neutrality with respect to the New York State congestion pricing policy debate. Nothing has changed in that regard.”

Jeffries also “unequivocally supports the temporary pause of limited duration … to better understand the financial impact on working class New Yorkers who have confronted a challenging inflationary environment as a result of the pandemic,” Eichar said.

He added: “As we look to the future, we must continue our work to lower costs for everyday Americans, strengthen the mass transportation in New York State and combat the climate crisis with the fierce urgency of now — as House Democrats have decisively done in connection with the Inflation Reduction Act.”

It’s not clear whether that stance will be enough to deflect potential progressive criticism of Jeffries from a base that is clamoring for party leaders to embrace the type of aggressive climate action a congestion pricing plan would enable.

Congestion pricing represented “the opportunity to completely transform our public transit system, our public infrastructure, make it accessible to people in wheelchairs and strollers,” said Ocasio-Cortez.

The funding cuts necessitated by Hochul’s decision will be “coming out of the Bronx — it’s not coming out of the wealthiest areas of Manhattan,” the progressive leader said. “And that’s what I think is so deeply, deeply harmful about the chaotic reversal that we saw. We can have our disagreements, but we need to be able to govern as planned.”

Still, Jeffries’ neutral position is in line with that of the other senior New York Democrat in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

When asked his response to Hochul’s decision at his weekly press conference Wednesday, Schumer said only that he would continue to support investments in New York’s public transportation infrastructure.

“Look, I have worked really hard for New York mass transit at the federal level during Covid and got them 14 billion dollars,” he said in response to a question from POLITICO’s E&E News. “We are continuing to give mass transit as much money as we can. We’re doing very well, in the last Congress and this, on mass transit.”

This story also appears in Climatewire.