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Manhattan Congestion Tolls
New York City was scheduled to begin congestion pricing for the region’s central business district, including Times Square and downtown Manhattan, at the end of June. Bebeto Matthews/AP

Did New York Just Ruin Transformative Climate Policy for Everyone?

Environmental experts fear the indefinite suspension of New York City’s congestion pricing will set back green city planning across the country by decades.

If congestion pricing can’t happen in New York, it probably cannot happen anywhere else in the United States, climate policy advocates warn.

Environmental policy experts across the country are reeling in the wake of New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s abrupt indefinite suspension of a plan to toll drivers $15 a day to enter the most congested parts of New York City. They are worried that if New York can’t find a way to implement congestion pricing, most major U.S. cities will never follow suit.

“Out of nowhere, the governor bowed to ‘Big Car,’ whose only argument was: We want to keep driving anywhere we want,” Bill McKibben, a leading environmentalist, told NOTUS. “It’s devastating to the people who worked for years on it in good faith, and it’s devastating to anyone anywhere in the country trying to build innovative projects to address the greatest crisis our species has faced. I can’t think of a single action by a major Democratic governor that’s as thoroughly anti-environmental,” he added.

Congestion pricing is considered to be an important tool to lower emissions from transportation, draw in new sources of funding for public transit and even begin to change the American relationship to cars, advocates say.

New York City was scheduled to begin congestion pricing for the region’s central business district, including Times Square and downtown Manhattan, at the end of June, after nearly 50 years of hard-fought negotiations.

Hochul abruptly reversed her support for the plan on June 5. It remains unclear whether her suspension will endure; some state lawmakers have suggested that her move is illegal, and the move leaves a massive hole in New York City’s public transit system’s budget. The congestion pricing plan was estimated to bring in $1 billion annually for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

But regardless of whether the suspension holds, environmental advocates see Hochul’s move as a betrayal.

“The fact that such an important, symbolic international city has taken this step backward toward the 1940s and 1950s and doesn’t move into this future that many cities are creating, is just a devastating symbol of where America is and our enthrallment to the auto industry and the fossil fuel industry,” said Jeff Goodell, the author of “The Heat Will Kill You First” and other books on climate change.

While similar models already exist in London, Stockholm and Singapore, a U.S. version of the toll would hopefully prove that such a program can be successful and politically popular in the United States. Policy officials in other cities had been looking to New York to serve as an example for congestion pricing.

“I was profoundly disappointed by Gov. Hochul’s decision because, in the Twin Cities, we were looking to New York for leadership on this,” said Chris Meyer, the president of Minneapolis’ planning commission. “No one wants to be the first. That’s why this is so devastating.”

It’s not just Minneapolis that was watching New York. Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago and even parts of Los Angeles are all facing severe budget shortfalls that are challenging the public transit systems.

“The fear among climate advocates nationally is: If we can’t do it in New York, at the end of this 15-year process of really hard work … we can’t do it anywhere,” said Elan Sykes, the director of energy and climate policy at the Progressive Policy Institute.

Environmentalists’ disappointment over New York reflects a difficult political reality: The idea of putting an additional toll on car commuters is politically unpopular. For congestion pricing, the conventional wisdom is that the idea is much more unpopular than reality, but a city needs to prove that’s true in the United States, said Chris Elmendorf, a professor at the UC Davis School of Law.

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Many politicians, including New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and vulnerable New York House Democrat Pat Ryan, praised Hochul’s actions in statements. Hochul also informed the White House and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of her decision before she announced it publicly, according to a New York Times report.

“Perhaps it’s also worth pointing out that since congestion pricing is more popular after people have experience with it, it probably does not make sense to roll out just before an election,” Elmendorf said. While he doesn’t see that as a justification for Hochul’s timing, he wonders if the MTA should have considered a different time to implement the toll.

Anna Kramer is a reporter at NOTUS.