New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Pat Foye has been consistently outspoken in his criticism of President Trump and the Federal Highway Administration concerning obtaining permission from Washington to begin congestion price tolling in Manhattan.
Foye and others blame both the President and FHWA for continued delays in the advancement of the federal NEPA Environmental Review process. MTA has been waiting for guidance to determine if the implementation for Congestion Toll pricing will need a less detailed Environmental Assessment or more complex Environmental Impact Statement.
In the meantime, nothing has prevented the MTA from preparing all the data necessary to support either environmental document over past months. Most recently, both Foye and MTA Capital Construction President Janno Lieber have both said the MTA will miss the previously anticipated start date of Jan. 1, 2021 for congestion pricing.
They went on to say that the delay could be up to one year more. During this same time period, both Pat Foye and Janno Lieber have been relatively silent when it comes to the lack of any activity on the part of the MTA Traffic Mobility Review Board.
They also play a critical role in starting Congestion Price Tolling. Even with any future NEPA finding by FHWA, congestion tolls can’t be implemented until this board is constituted and completes its own mission.
This process to start and complete final determination for congestion toll pricing could take up to a year. It is a very politically sensitive issue.
The board will have to deal with divergent groups and opinions on who should pay and how much. To reach a political consensus will be the equivalent of threading a very small needle.
The Congestion Pricing Commission was specifically created by elected officials as Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, state Senate leader Andrea Steward Cousins and state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.
It is crafted so that they and members of their respective legislative chambers can avoid accountability or blame for any negative outcomes. This body will determine congestion pricing.
Tolls are supposed to raise $15 billion toward funding the MTA $51 billion 2020-2024 Five Year Capital Plan. The board is made up of one chairperson and five members. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio never announced their respective members.
Eight months later, why have they not made these critical appointments? Details of who will pay what can never be resolved and made public until this board is established, proceeds and completes its assigned mandated tasks.
Elected officials from outside of Manhattan including the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, those representing surrounding suburban Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Putnam and Rockland counties along with New Jersey and Connecticut will continue lobbying for exemptions or special discounted tolls for their respective constituents.
Those representing employees of essential municipal services such as police and fire along with seniors, physically challenged, independent small businesses, FedEx, Amazon, UPS and others will also be looking for favors.
Issuing more exemptions or special discounts will result in less MTA revenue. This commission, if it is every constituted, will decide the cost for congestion pricing. They will be meeting behind closed doors to work out these critical details.
This is inconsistent with both Cuomo’s and deBlasio’s respective promises to conduct the most open and transparent administrations in the history of state and municipal government. The final recommendations for tolling were supposed to be announced before the end of November 2020.
Even if congestion pricing starts in 2022, due to the economic downturn as a result of COVID-19, it is doubtful with only three years left in the 2020-2025 Five Year Capital Plan, that the amount actually raised will be anywhere close to the anticipated $15 billion.
We could be in an economic recession into 2022. Sooner rather than later, the MTA is going to have to come to grips with reality.
Without congestion pricing and other anticipated revenue streams. the $51 billion 2020-2024 Five Year Capital Plan may have to be cut by $10 to $20 billion. This will result in a plan closer to the previous $32 billion 2015-2019 Five Year Capital Plan.
(Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office.