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Hochul pauses congestion pricing as other environmental bills flounder

Gov. Kathy Hochul announces she plans to pause a plan on congestion pricing in New York City on June 5, 2024, in a recorded message posted on YouTube.
Gov. Kathy Hochul's Office
YouTube screenshot
Gov. Kathy Hochul announces she plans to pause a plan on congestion pricing in New York City on June 5, 2024, in a recorded message posted on YouTube.

Citing concerns about inflation and the post-pandemic trend of fewer people commuting to offices, Gov. Kathy Hochul on Wednesday paused a plan to charge $15 for cars coming into Manhattan south of 60th Street.

The decision to delay the congestion pricing plan, which was due to begin at the end of the month, comes as other anti-climate change initiatives are floundering.

Hochul made the announcement in a prerecorded message. She did not take questions from the media.

“Let’s be real. A $15 charge may not seem like a lot to someone who has the means. But it can break the budget of a hard-working or middle-class household,” Hochul said in the message. “It puts a squeeze on the very people who make this city go. The teachers, first responders, small-business workers, bodega owners. And given these financial pressures, I cannot add another burden to working and middle-class New Yorkers or create another obstacle to our continued recovery.”

The congestion pricing plan spurred opposition from some commuters, Democratic politicians including the governor of New Jersey and some state senators on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley. It was also opposed by former President Donald Trump, a Republican who is running for a second term against incumbent Democratic President Joe Biden.

By delaying congestion pricing, Hochul is potentially taking an issue away from Republican candidates for Congress in several competitive downstate districts. In 2022, the GOP flipped four seats in New York from Democratic to Republican, and helped Republicans gain control of the House.

Progressive Democratic lawmakers condemned the move, calling it a political betrayal, and predicted that the reversal will backfire on the Democrats.

“I don't think that's a winning political strategy,” said Assemblyman Robert Carroll, who represents portions of Brooklyn. “And I think I saw Republicans both at the local state and federal level today, crowing that they won. That's going to be on political ads throughout November. … And I think that this is going to blow up in all of their faces.”

Assemblymember Emily Gallagher said she was angered to hear about Hochul’s decision from the news media. She said the Legislature approved the plan five years ago and was not consulted about the change.

Gallagher said she and the others were particularly taken by surprise, since the announcement comes just weeks after Hochul was featured at an international summit on the climate crisis sponsored by the Vatican, where she met with Pope Francis.

Hochul also attended a conference in Ireland, where she highlighted steps the state was going to take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including congestion pricing.

Assemblymember Emily Gallagher and other state lawmakers decry Governor Hochul's decsion to pause congestiong pricing . The held a news conference at the Capitol on June 5, 2024
Karen DeWitt
New York Public News Network
New York Assemblymember Emily Gallagher and other state lawmakers decry Gov. Kathy Hochul's decsion to pause congestion pricing at a news conference at the Capitol on June 5, 2024.

“And now, all of a sudden, she is adding on to this delay,” Gallagher said. “Where is the political courage to see something through that we desperately need?”

The congestion pricing plan was to have generated $1 billion a year in tolls to be used to improve public transportation.

Hochul’s announcement comes as other environmental bills are faltering in the State Legislature as the legislative session draws to a close.

Supporters of an expanded bottle deposit law rallied at the Capitol earlier in the week, seeking an expansion of container deposits for wine, liquor and nearly all non-carbonated beverages. They also want to double the deposit from 5 cents to 10 cents.

“I think we'd all agree that things that were worth a nickel in 1983 are not worth a nickel today,” said Blair Horner with the New York Public Interest Research Group.

A measure to prevent gas utilities from charging ratepayers to subsidize new gas lines, known as the NY HEAT Act, is also failing to gain enough traction so far to make it to a floor vote in both houses. And a proposal to reduce plastic packaging by 50% has been weakened to a goal of just 30% over the next dozen years.

Horner, who has lobbied on environmental and other progressive-leaning issues for years, said companies seldom want to change to respond to environmental concerns.

“It's usually industry opposition, and they build coalitions, and they spend tons of money to astroturf their perspective against the needs of real people,” Horner said. “Climate change isn't going away.”

Advocates have not given up hope. The session is not due to end until the weekend, and there’s a lot that can happen before then.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.