Episode 127: Kathy Hochul’s Congestion Pricing Flip-Flop Fiasco 


Doug Gordon: This is a special episode of The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon. I’m here, as always, with Sarah Goodyear and Aaron Naparstek.

Aaron Naparstek: And maybe more like an emergency episode.

Doug: Yeah. ‘Special’ sounds like it’s gonna be fun. This is not gonna be fun. It might be fun to just vent, but we’re not—we’re not sharing fun news.

Sarah Goodyear: No.

Aaron: Yeah. So as people probably heard, Governor Kathy Hochul, the governor of New York state, our fine state, yesterday issued a video announcing that congestion pricing for New York City would no longer go forward. It’s kind of a stunning, out-of-nowhere development.

Sarah: Yeah, it was really shocking. I mean, I don’t get shocked easily. And this was—I just—I mean, we just saw the governor at an event here in Brooklyn. Doug, you and I saw her not long ago, and there she was standing saying all sorts of great things, and then she just comes out and just pulls the rug out from all.

Aaron: That’s why I didn’t show up to that event.

Sarah: [laughs]

Doug: Yeah, that was the Sammy’s law, which allowed New York City to finally control its own speed limits. We are recording this on Thursday the 6th. We’re gonna drop this on Friday the 7th. It’s a special episode. We don’t normally release on Fridays, but we had to talk about this. Yesterday was—and today and probably every day for the next little while, absolutely the most depressing and demoralizing day I’ve experienced as an advocate in all of the time—I’m not exaggerating, in all of the time that I’ve been doing this.

Aaron: If it makes you feel better, I was talking to people today who’ve been involved in this stuff for 30 or 40 years, and they said the same thing. They’ve been involved for even longer.

Doug: Yeah, the only comfort I have is that I am not Charlie Komanoff, who’s been doing this for his entire career, like, since the ’70s.

Aaron: Just to set things up so people understand what’s happening here is New York City had this policy set and ready to go on June 30. So starting on June 30, anyone driving into lower Manhattan below 60th Street, you know, off of the highways around Manhattan, but into the sort of city streets, was going to have to pay $15. And this congestion pricing system was gonna raise money for New York City’s regional transit system—for the subways, for the commuter rails, the buses. It was going to fund New York City’s transit capital plan up to about $15 billion in the next few years. All kinds of improvements and absolutely essential components of the subway system and other transit were gonna be funded by congestion pricing.

Aaron: Congestion pricing was a program that took many years in the making, enormous amount of public process, votes by city council and the state legislature. It’s an incredibly well-developed plan that the governor basically just sort of stood up out of nowhere and said, like, “Oh, sorry. We’re not gonna do this now.”

Doug: We should take a step back. This became law after all the advocacy and all the organizing and everything that you’re talking about, Aaron, in 2019. Here we are in 2024, three weeks to go before the cameras are set to go on, the license plate readers, and it’s done. There was an entire history of advocacy for congestion pricing before that that could and probably has filled many chapters of many books. And yeah, now that is most likely dead before arrival.

Sarah: So this news was just so upsetting to me personally that I have to admit I did not actually listen to or watch the governor making this announcement because it was just like a little too much for me to handle. I was trying to do some self care there. But I understand that I’m gonna have to be strong and face reality. Because this is reality. I mean, she had some stated reasons for doing this. It wasn’t just a whim, according to her. So what were her stated reasons? I mean, let’s—can we hear what her rationalization was?

Doug: Yeah, let me set this up. Because there are her stated reasons, and then there are the reasons reasons. And there’s been a lot of reporting about what those are. So yeah, so Wednesday morning, wake up, there’s news: congestion pricing might be delayed. Then by the middle of the morning, there’s news that the governor is going to release—and this is important—a prerecorded video with her announcement.

Aaron: Right. So not a press conference. She’s not gonna stand there and take questions. You’re not gonna get to talk to her at all. Just a video. And by the way, it looks like a hostage video.

Doug: Oh yes, it does. So we’re not gonna play the whole thing. I think it’s important to set up. Her stated reasons for doing this were basically that congestion pricing became law in 2019. That’s before the pandemic, before remote work, before the more recent fears about crime on the subways. By the way, crime is now down to pre-pandemic levels. She talked about how in 2019, there were record levels of tourism in Manhattan. By the way, tourism is now surpassing those records. The only real true thing she said was that office vacancy is still up. We have something like 40 percent of offices are empty. Not sure office workers are ever coming back in the numbers that they were, but that was one of her stated reasons. So she sets all of that up and basically says, “Yeah, things are different now.”

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Kathy Hochul: Circumstances have changed, and we must respond to the facts on the ground, not from the rhetoric from five years ago. So after careful consideration, I have come to the difficult decision that implementing the planned congestion pricing system risks too many unintended consequences for New Yorkers at this time. For that reason, I have directed the MTA to indefinitely pause the program.]

Sarah: Aah!

Aaron: But, like, she’s—it’s just so hostage video. She’s just like reading a note that someone handed her, it sounds like. It’s just the entire thing is so stilted and weird.

Sarah: Yeah, and the idea that literally three weeks ahead of the launch of this thing, that that’s when we’re gonna look at the—that now we’re looking at these conditions on the ground. I mean, you know, for those who don’t know, this thing has been through so many reviews and also multiple lawsuits ongoing right now that have looked at every aspect of the details on the ground in detail for the last several months.

Aaron: Yeah, this is the thing that I think people who are not super immersed in, you know, New York politics can really quite grasp easily is that, like, this is just unprecedented. I can’t think of any analogous situation where a policy, a major government policy that has been through so much process and so much vetting and so—like, New York City Council voted for it 12 years ago, the state legislature voted for it. There was millions of dollars and years of advocacy.

Doug: A 4,000-page environmental review that looked at the impacts on traffic and pollution as far away as the Philadelphia suburbs, all the way up into Connecticut. I think possibly beyond. Like, there was no shortage of on-the-ground information about this.

Aaron: Massive. And the coalition that pushed this policy, like, unprecedented. You have, like, absolute social justice warrior organizations, you know, from, like, Sunset Park, Brooklyn, saying, “Yes, congestion pricing,” on up to REBNY, the Real Estate Board of New York, and the corporate—what do they call Kathy Wilde’s group? I’m not even remembering.

Doug: It’s just like, these are not like organizations that are normally hanging out singing Kumbaya.

Aaron: These are major business orgs.

Doug: Linking arms, hand in hand to fight for the same cause.

Aaron: So it’s really hard to think of any analogy where so much government process has been done, and then a kind of one elected official just sort of stands up and says, No, you know what? Like, sorry. Three weeks to go here. We’ve—we’ve dropped about a billion dollars to set up this congestion pricing system. All the technology is on the street.”

Doug: We’re gonna get—we’re gonna get into exactly what kind of money she is lighting on fire, but it is a lot of money.

Aaron: All of the transit system’s funding is on the line, like a $15-billion capital plan. There’s no real way of filling that hole. And we’re just gonna not—like, she just stands up and says, “We’re not gonna do it.”

Doug: I think we’re gonna listen to more of Hochul’s speech. And it’s really important to hear what’s not in the speech, because she says circumstances on the ground have changed. You know, tourism, crime, office vacancy, et cetera. All of these things have to factor in. What does she not mention? You know what’s a lot worse than five years ago. Fucking climate change. And she does not mention that. I mean, she does talk about pollution later in the speech, but she doesn’t really mention that the prime goal of this, it’s right there in the name, ‘congestion pricing.’ It is to reduce as much traffic congestion in the city as possible, and there’s no better program to do it other than pricing the cost of driving.

Sarah: I just am so enraged that I wanted to just point out that on the Governor’s own site, it talks about her leadership on the climate issue and says, “As governor, Kathy is committed to ensuring that New York leads the transition to a clean energy future and advances climate justice. She’s working tirelessly to ensure that New York is a global leader in the fight against climate change, and she will continue enacting policies to protect our communities and the next generation of New Yorkers.” That’s from her website.

Aaron: Well, and we played parts of the speech that she gave last—you know, a few months ago when she was announcing that this was starting. We played a chunk of that on episode 111, like, a few months ago with Diana Lind. And you can hear. She’s pretty great. She’s like, “We need to do congestion pricing for climate, for traffic, for air quality, funding transit. All the reasons.”

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Kathy Hochul: I walk the streets of this city almost every day, and I see it. And I know the anxiety people have when you’re at the intersection and cars are flying through and you can barely—and the delivery trucks are jammed up. They can’t make their deliveries, and they’re getting frustrated, and the cars behind them are all beeping because they can’t get through. It is chaos. It is chaos. And think about the pedestrians just trying to get around, the bicyclists, the delivery people. It is dangerous for them. But all this concentrated activity, the vehicles sitting there idling because they cannot move, and our buses that are not moving, it’s also creating all this exhaust and emissions that our people are breathing. As I mentioned at the outset, we’re more cognizant of what’s going into our lungs these days. And we’re experiencing the effects of the wildfires in Canada. What about the wildfires that are happening on our own streets right here, coming out of the exhaust pipes from all these vehicles? [applause]]

Doug: She does, in this announcement right after the part of the clip that we play, she pays lip service. She says, you know, “We work to try to figure out a way to reduce traffic and pollution.” But then she really gets into, like, what’s really at stake here.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Kathy Hochul: 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. It puts the 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 in middle class New Yorkers or create another obstacle to our continued recovery.]

Doug: Bodega owners do not fucking drive! Bodega owners do not drive. I’ve been waiting to unleash on this one particular comment. Teachers do not drive into Manhattan. There have been literal articles. Hell Gate New York, put one up that said that to their best estimates, only 750 teachers probably drive into Manhattan. That’s it. Out of thousands. First responders? Yeah, lots of cops, lots of firefighters drive to their precincts, to the firehouses. But small business workers? The dude who makes your sandwich at the bodega and then, like, sells you a Fig Newton wrapped in cellophane, he does not drive. Most bodegas are barely the width of a parking space. Where would all of these people park? This part of the thing drove me fucking crazy. These people take transit. These people are stuck on buses behind the rich people who own and drive cars and can afford $15.

Sarah: Right. And that is the thing that just enraged me so much about this clip.

Doug: Bodega owners!

Sarah: Bodega owners. But also bodega workers, all the people, the millions of people who take transit to their jobs, to their schools, to their doctor’s appointments, to everything that they do to make this city great, those people somehow don’t exist in this scenario. And we don’t have to worry about them having any burdens. We don’t have to worry about the fact that their way of getting to work is falling apart and getting more and more expensive and just degrading to where it’s barely usable. That somehow doesn’t matter at all.

Doug: I’ve always said that what coal miners are to Republicans, drivers are to Democrats. They are the working class. They are—Republicans will never care one whit about service workers and retail workers who make $10 an hour or less, who are the real working class, because those are largely, like, Black women and people of color. And Democrats don’t give a shit, at least in this state, especially in this state, about the people of color, the low-income people who take the bus. They don’t exist. “Working class” equals “Drive.”

Aaron: And everybody takes the bus in New York City.

Doug: Everybody takes the bus.

Aaron: It’s not like the bus in a lot of other US cities where it is just, you know …

Doug: Yeah.

Aaron: Anyways, this is all BS. That’s probably why it sounds like she’s reading and she looks like she’s in a hostage video, because she doesn’t even believe what she’s saying. Let’s talk about the real reasons why this is happening.

Doug: Oh, you don’t want more rage juice?

Aaron: Oh, if you have more rage. Oh, bring it on.

Sarah: And then we can talk about what’s really happening here.

Doug: Yeah. This is a sort of continuation of the theme, so let’s play this.

Aaron: Okay.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Kathy Hochul: This decision is about doing what’s right for the people who make our city thrive. It’s about standing up for the hardworking men and women who get up every single day, do their jobs and just want a fair shake. The little guy who feels no one listens to them. I’m here to say, “We are listening. This decision is about you.” And to those cynics who question my motivation, I approach every decision through one lens: what is best for New Yorkers? And we need to make sure our solutions work for everyone, especially those who are struggling to make ends meet.]

Aaron: It’s just such insufferable bullshit. It’s really hard to bear.

Doug: The little guy. The little guy.

Aaron: Yeah. I mean, the little guy driving into lower Manhattan in his Audi Q7 or something, you know?

Doug: And paying $57 to park at a garage.

Aaron: Yeah.

Doug: You know, like I said, I think there’s this—the little guy, the person who’s forgotten. You know, I think there was that theme in the 2016 election and then even going back to the McCain election, where there was the forgotten man, Joe the Plumber, and all that kind of stuff, and Republicans standing up and saying, you know, “Nobody in Washington is listening to you.” Well, I think this is Hochul trying to appeal to people who will never vote for her or for any other Democrat.

Sarah: Are you perhaps one of those cynics who question her motivation?

Doug: Yes.

Sarah: [laughs]

Aaron: Because I mean, the real deal here is this is about the election in November. This is about the national election, right?

Sarah: Yeah.

Aaron: And so the people I’ve talked to who know the most about what’s going on here basically said that Hochul got a talking to from Chuck Schumer, Senator Chuck Schumer and Hakeem Jeffries. It just so happens, unfortunately for the rest of the world, that, you know, the two leaders of the national Democratic Party, two of the three leaders of the national Democratic Party happen to be from our neighborhood in Brooklyn, and they’re really worried about losing house seats in Long Island.

Sarah: Yep.

Aaron: Basically.

Sarah: And the Hudson Valley.

Aaron: And the Hudson Valley. So New York metro area. And they have good reason to. They completely—these guys completely misled the party, particularly in New York state. Like, New York is largely responsible for the Democrats losing the House in the last election.

Doug: Politico is reporting exactly what you said, Aaron, that Hakeem Jeffries called and said, like, “Hey, you gotta back off, because this is gonna kill us in these three particular races.” But StreetsBlog and other organizations and news sites have said congestion pricing wasn’t even, like, a top three issue in these races.

Aaron: We just had—we just had a special election in Long Island with Tom Suozzi, who beat the Republican. Congestion pricing did not come up in that race, really.

Doug: Yeah. And I think what’s happening is they’re confusing disapproval for congestion pricing with will this be a factor in your vote in a house race? And those two are very—those are very different questions.

Sarah: But I don’t actually think it’s even that. I think that they literally are thinking this is something we can give to people who maybe hate us. It’s not that they think that those people are already thinking about it and would have been voting against the Democrats because of congestion pricing, necessarily. I think that they’re just like, “Hey, we can get out there and seem like we’re the good guys who give them stuff that they want that they didn’t even know that they wanted, necessarily. But look how generous we’re being to them.” And so they’re thinking that they can—and it’s just like, these people are not gonna like you.

Doug: There was a great quote from the Transport Workers Union president, John Samuelsen. He has actually been against congestion pricing. You’d think he’d be in favor of it because it’s gonna bring all of this new work to his union members, but he’s been against it. You know, union leadership drives, the rank and file takes the subway. Anybody who takes the subway early in the morning, 20 percent of the people sometimes you see are transit workers. He basically said, “This is great. We’re glad that it’s gone, but there isn’t a single person who’s gonna thank Hochul for this and give her a vote.”

Aaron: Well, so, you know, to me what it suggests, and in some ways this is even more concerning to me than the substance of what’s happening here, which the substance is a disaster. I mean, they’ve really tanked the New York metro transit system and they’ve tanked the state budget. But what it also suggests to me is that there’s just absolute flailing, desperate panic among Democratic leadership. You know, it’s just such a bad—to do something like this that is just such clear malfeasance and mismanagement, it’s just on a fundamental level, like, who runs an organization like this? To just kind of, like, pull the rug out from under congestion pricing at the last second is just—it’s just terrible management.

Aaron: And I can only imagine that, like, Schumer and Jeffries are looking at some terrible numbers and thinking, like, you know, “How do we turn this around?” And they’re just kind of like, flailing around, looking for a way to do it, and they’re sort of looking at congestion pricing. But it also suggests that they don’t know what their job is. When we started StreetsBlog in the early 2000s, we covered congestion pricing extensively. And I watched Hakeem Jeffries at these—they were called the Traffic Mitigation Commission meetings. It was the first, you know, real meetings around developing a congestion pricing scheme. And I was really struck back in 2007 at how Hakeem was already opposed to congestion pricing. He represented a district in Brooklyn as an assembly member that was—had very few drivers. It’s Fort Greene and Prospect Heights, and a very transit-oriented neighborhood. And yet he was constantly teaming up with these suburban New York state legislators like Richard Brodsky from Westchester to stand up and oppose congestion pricing. And this is like 15 years ago, 16 longer years ago.

Aaron: And what I started to realize was that, like, this wasn’t necessarily good policy for the greater good, but it was very good policy for Hakeem Jeffries’ rise through the ranks of Democratic leaders. You know, sort of like throwing his urban transit riding constituents under the bus and teaming up with a powerful suburban legislator like Brodsky enhanced Hakeem’s power. I mean, now look, it’s like almost 20 years later, and the guy is one of the most powerful Democratic elected officials in the country.

Doug: I mean, the good news is that in New York City, when you throw your constituents under the bus, the bus is only going two miles an hour.

Aaron: Well, there’s not even gonna be a bus now.

Doug: Yeah. So there’s kind of two things I want to hit on here. Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an advocacy organization nonprofit put out a response. And they had had a whole lot of stuff before this even happened about what is the actual impact on drivers in the region, in New York state, New Jersey and Connecticut. And basically it said, “On average, just one to two percent of workers in each legislative district commute by car, with a maximum of around 3.5 percent. Thus, the congestion pricing fee will affect only a tiny segment of the workforce, debunking the myth that it will broadly burden commuters.” So, like, a direct shot at what Hochul later says in her speech. “Furthermore, the fee’s impact is consistent across districts in both New York and New Jersey. Between 97 and 99 percent of workers remain unaffected by the fee, reinforcing its fairness and equity.” With that in mind, here is how Hochul closes out her speech.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Kathy Hochul: But in this moment of financial stress, high inflation and already the high cost of living for so many New Yorkers, my focus must be on putting more money back in people’s pockets. And that’s why I must stand up for them and say no to implementing the congestion pricing toll at this time. In the coming months, I’ll work to continue working with the city, state and federal leaders to ensure we can achieve the objectives of congestion pricing without putting undue strain on already stressed New Yorkers. There never is only one path forward. Together, I’m confident we’ll be able to deliver the world class public transit that riders deserve, ensure a cleaner planet for future generations, and to continue to fuel the vitality and the comeback of New York City. Thank you.]

Sarah: Oh, fuck you!

Doug: [laughs] Sarah could barely continue. I could see—I could see, like, a cartoon character, a red line just going up, like, across her torso, up her neck, and then steam coming out of her ears. I mean, so yes, only one to two percent of people across most legislative districts in the region drive into Manhattan alone, but she’s gonna put more money back in people’s pockets. Never mind the transit riders who are probably gonna see fare increases or who will be stuck in traffic and have to pay, let’s say, a fee when they’re late to pick up their kid at daycare, or get fired when they’re late to work. It’s just all bullshit.

Sarah: I do really want to talk about the money involved here, because it’s the governor’s job to manage the state, to be a manager and to think about the budget and where all the money is coming from and going. And she’s saying that she is gonna be able to just do all of the things that congestion pricing was supposed to do without taking that money out of the pockets of New Yorkers. So let’s talk about that.

Doug: Yeah, and I do think there’s an important thing in her speech along those lines where she never says she’s ending congestion pricing. She never says she’s canceling it. She only says things like, “We are postponing it, we are suspending it at this time.” Because there’s a law. The law says that the MTA has to raise this money to fund all of these projects, a lot of projects that were already underway under the capital plan. I think the only people who knew of this news were, like, Chuck Schumer, Hakeem Jeffries, Kathy Hochul and, like, the one lawyer she filtered this speech through.

Aaron: Yeah. I mean, there are some questions around the legality of this. You know, she doesn’t actually have the ability to sort of unilaterally stop it, but she’s the governor, so she can sort of decide not to flip the switch on. But there will be a kind of attempt at getting a judge to just tell the MTA that they have to flip the switch on on June 30 as they’re legally mandated. So there will be some sort—there is, like, one, I think, last play that advocacy orgs have in the courts to try to get this thing turned on.

Aaron: But there are a lot of questions around, like, how can she actually just decide not to implement something that the state legislature voted for, and that the MTA board has to—is actually in charge of? So the legality of this is a big question. But the politics, I mean, what’s apparently happened already is that the state legislature, which is New York state, is a one-party town, and most of the legislators in both the senate and the assembly, they’re from the city, they’re from New York City. And they have the ability, they have the super majorities that they could actually tell Kathy Hochul, like, “Go blow. Like, we’re overriding you. We voted for this and we’re doing it. Give us some legislation, we’ll veto it, and we’re gonna go ahead.

Aaron: But instead of doing that, our New York City legislators in Albany are putting together their lists of goodies. They actually kind of love this sort of opportunity where the Governor desperately needs them to let this go, and they’re gonna sort of put together their list of goodies and be like, “All right, Kathy. You want to kill congestion pricing? Here’s what we need.” So apparently the lists of goodies have already been issued. And you got your State Assembly Leader Carl Heastie from the Bronx, and Andrea Stewar-Cousins. I think she’s from, like, Queens or something. Yeah, it sounds like they’re sort of planning to go along with it as long as they get a bunch of stuff.

Doug: So the MTA is legally required by this 2019 law to raise about a billion dollars a year. The money has to come from somewhere, and it was gonna come from largely suburban drivers paying $15, truckers paying $36. Now we’ve gotta figure out another revenue source. So when the Times first reported this, and this has been backed up now by lots of subsequent reporting, they’re now floating a payroll tax, an increase to the payroll tax for New York City. So rather than toll the very small number of disproportionately wealthy drivers—and just before anybody leaves a comment or writes in, I understand there are some hard cases out there who need to drive, but on average, most of the people who are driving on the regular into New York City are wealthier than their transit-commuting counterparts. So rather than taxing them, tolling them, we’re just gonna say to every business in New York City, “We’re gonna tax you to the tune of $1 billion a year,” which is just A) bad politics, but B) I think really indicative of this idea that the only character who matters in American politics is the suburban driver.

Sarah: Yeah. And I just want to say, like, I don’t understand how a payroll tax is putting money back into the pockets of ordinary people. That is just, like, so not true. Also, when people pay a congestion charge, they are paying for a thing that they are going to use. They are paying to go into a place and use that place with their car and put their car there.

Aaron: Just like you pay a subway fare. And a bus fare.

Sarah: Like you pay a subway fare. Like you pay—people seem to—bridge tolls are somewhat more palatable for people.

Doug: You’re paying for something that you are using, but you’re paying for something that you’re getting, which is a faster commute, you know?

Sarah: Right. Right, exactly. And—but a payroll tax, that’s just on everybody who works. I really don’t see how this is equitable where the other thing wasn’t.

Doug: It also shows how full of shit Hochul’s speech was, because if the fear is that Manhattan offices are empty, that people are staying away from jobs in the central business district and the economy is not recovering, if I’m thinking of locating a business in New York City, as of today I’m rethinking that. She’s totally full of shit. This has nothing to do with whether or not Manhattan is doing well. It has only everything to do with drivers didn’t want to pay for something that they used to get for free.

Aaron: And the regressiveness is even worse than what we’re describing in that—you know, so this payroll tax is going to fund the transit system. And a lot of the transit system is actually commuter rail that goes out to Westchester and Long Island. So in a way, what’s happening is that we’re levying a payroll tax on people in the city, and then that money is—like, a significant portion of that money is gonna go fund transit out in the suburbs. So instead of it becoming—it just completely flipped it, so instead of suburban drivers being asked to sort of help fund the city that they burdened so much with their cars and their driving, the city is essentially being asked to fund suburban transit.

Sarah: Let’s talk about some of the really, really crucial stuff that this would be funding that is now gonna be in question.

Doug: Yeah. The top thing for me: 18 stations were scheduled to get ADA upgrades, including elevators. Our subway system is pretty shameful in that the majority of stations do not have elevator access. So 18 would have been added. Those now are in real danger of just not happening. So this is another kind of rage-inducing thing for me because one of the things the opponents like to say is, “What about all the disabled people who need to drive?” And we are not three disabled people. We have talked about this on the podcast, but if your real concern is access for people with disabilities, we just had Anna Zivarts on the show, talks about all the people who are non drivers. They certainly could have benefited.

Aaron: But, you know, it’s so much more than that, too. It’s really like the nuts and bolts of the subway system is now, like, just going unfunded.

Doug: Well, signal upgrades are just …

Aaron: Signal upgrades, like, fan plant repairs, pump room upgrades, like, all the stuff that’s kind of like beneath the hood of the system was expecting this money. We were also gonna use this funding for expansion of the system for things like the Second Avenue subway system and, you know, new bus depots so that we could start to have electric buses, you know, cleaner buses. There’s just a huge number of projects and things that …

Doug: Climate-proofing the system was a big part of some of this stuff as well.

Aaron: Aging stations. Like, they’re just gonna start to deteriorate, and you’re not—you’re only gonna really notice, like, “Wow, like, I’m stuck in this subway tunnel for 20 minutes. What’s going on?” Like, you’re never gonna know that it was because, like, congestion pricing didn’t happen.

Doug: Maybe smarter people out there can answer this question, but the Second Avenue subway line extension and some of the work that even Governor Hochul wants to do around Penn Station—it’s like one of her signature projects—a lot of that work was dependent on federal matching funds from the Biden administration. But our end of the matching funds was gonna come from congestion pricing.

Aaron: Right. So we’re apparently gonna lose a lot of federal funding that was supposed to come to us.

Doug: To the tune of something like $5 billion, at least for just those two projects, I think.

Aaron: It’s so—it’s just like—it’s just so weird. I mean, I’m just struck by the weirdness of this. It doesn’t make sense, and it also doesn’t even make the political issue go away.

Doug: It’s the exact opposite.

Aaron: Yeah, the exact opposite. Like, Hochul had this opportunity to just be like—she just could have, like, stood up. You know, if it’s true that Schumer and Jefferies were sort of pushing her to do this, or whomever was pushing her to do this, she could be like, “Look, like, we’re New York. We’re gonna do this. We do big things. We still need to show we can get things done. We need to show that Democrats can manage things and move us into the future.” And then by the end of summer, we probably would have started to see news stories about how, like, hey, German tourists like hanging out in Manhattan now that it’s so many fewer cars, and people are moving into the congestion pricing zone and businesses are okay, and the various Carmageddon predictions didn’t happen. Like, she had a real opportunity there, and she’s doing this instead.

Doug: There’s a great political leader who once said, “From time to time, leaders are called upon to envision a better future, be bold in the implementation and execution, and be undaunted by the opposition.”

Aaron: Oh, Winston Churchill?

Doug: Nope.

Sarah: Ronald Reagan?

Doug: No. Kathy fucking Hochul.

Sarah: [laughs]

Doug: She said that in December at a rally with Transportation Alternatives and Riders Alliance and all of these state and city officials basically saying, “Suck it, losers. Congestion pricing is happening. I’m the person who’s gonna finally get it done. Look at me.” And now she just totally reversed.

Sarah: Okay, so I have a question. I have a friend who lives in East Harlem, and a piece of equipment recently appeared in front of her house, a very large piece of construction-ish equipment. She’s just like, “What is this?” And she called 311. She’s like, “This can’t just sit in the middle of my street all this time.” Well, she got a really nice letter back from a guy who said, “Hey, we’re the company that has the contract for phase two, contract one of the Second Avenue—the next phase of the Second Avenue subway expansion.”

Sarah: So, you know, here are these companies that have gotten these contracts and gotten money to put these things in places in preparation for doing their job. So what is gonna happen? And maybe you guys can help me understand what is gonna happen. I mean, there’s a lot of money that has already been spent. There’s way more that is promised to be spent. And there are private companies. What happens with them? Aren’t they gonna sue New York and say, like, “What’s up with your changing policy here, folks?”

Doug: Yeah, so there’s a company called TransCor. They’re based out of Nashville. Probably a tough name to have down in the South these days but, you know—and they are the company that installs, maintains and operates the cameras, the gantries that are at 59th Street, 60th Street. They have something like a $507-million contract. I can’t imagine they’re just gonna be like, “Hey, you guys keep the equipment. We’ll walk away from this.” They’ve probably hired people to operate this and take care of it.

Aaron: There’s millions and millions of dollars of jobs and work related to these projects. I mean, this is, like, so bad for the economy.

Doug: All of the people who would install all of the elevators.

Aaron: Yeah.

Doug: You know, who would paint those subway stations and build the parking garage and do the climate mitigation work. What’s gonna happen to that?

Aaron: Yeah. So it’s just very weird. And it’s like, everyone you talk to about this, they’re just kind of like, “We don’t really know who Hochul was talking to. Like, how she even came to this decision.” It’s like this decision was made with a very small circle of people, and clearly Democratic Party leaders. Apparently Hochul’s staff, they’re sort of surprised by the kind of outrage that’s coming back at them. They thought that this was gonna be very popular.

Sarah: Well, here’s the thing. Like, are we wrong? Is it gonna be popular? Let’s try to challenge ourselves a little bit here. Like, is there a universe in which Kathy Hochul has just done something so smart and shrewd?

Aaron: Right. And saved us from fascism, right?

Sarah: She saved us from fascism.

Aaron: Saved the Republic by delaying.

Doug: Like, Hakeem Jeffries becomes the majority leader in the House, and it’s all thanks to these three or four house seats that we saved because drivers didn’t have to pay $15.

Sarah: And then in January, she’ll just say, like, “Okay, now we’ve looked at it some more, and now we’re gonna start it after all.”

Aaron: I was hoping that that was the—you know, all right, so I mean, there’s two questions. Like, one, is this smart politically? And two, like, is this just some sort of, like, little dodge where she’s gonna—she’s like, “Oh, yeah. We’re not gonna do this.” And then after the election she does it. But so taking the first one, I mean, I feel like—no, I think …

Sarah: [laughs]

Aaron: I think there was a—this doesn’t actually take congestion pricing out of the political dialogue. Like, if the goal was to be like, “Oh, Democrats, you know, they’re not gonna do this,” I mean, congestion pricing is now gonna be a huge fight throughout the summer and into the November elections. So we’re gonna keep hearing about it. Whereas we could have turned the system on and potentially just started hearing good things about congestion pricing by the end of the summer, hopefully. Like, people starting to see the benefits.

Doug: And indeed, that is what happens in places that have done congestion pricing. So there’s a famous chart that has probably made the rounds to a lot of our listeners about the political valley of death. Anybody who’s ever worked on any sort of transportation-related project or new social change—the smoking ban. Always controversial. The most controversial.

Aaron: Bike lanes.

Doug: Right before it launches in Stockholm, congestion pricing had something like a 36 to 40 percent approval rating right before implementation. They then did a poll about, I think, three to six months later, and that was over 50 percent approval. And then by the time you get to a year or two out, it’s just completely reversed, and it’s something like 70 or 80 percent approval. So I think, Aaron, you’re exactly right that I think right now, the only people who were paying attention—or, you know, just a few days ago, the only people who were paying attention to this were, like, the real inside baseball transportation and political nerds. There was obviously the Post running a campaign about this and lots of pending lawsuits. But as every day crept forward, you got the sense of, like, it’s gonna happen. Like, it’s gonna happen.

Aaron: Like, New York is gonna do something big. Wow!

Doug: It’s gonna do it. I mean, maybe a lawsuit will—like, a judge will issue a stay, and it will get postponed. But none of us could have expected this. But I do think that it would have happened, and then by August it just would have been over. And now you’re exactly right. Like, people are gonna be talking about this. At every campaign stop, they’re gonna be asking people, “Are you gonna do congestion pricing in December? In January? If Biden wins reelection?” Et cetera. This won’t go away now. And I think it was on its way to going away.

Sarah: Okay. So I have just, like, one positive thing that I thought yesterday that was, like, the one positive thought that I had, which was that I would not have to, when those cameras got turned on, when it went into effect, hear from certain people that I know. And I just was thinking, “Oh, wow. Like, I’m not gonna have to defend congestion pricing in late June. I’m gonna actually be able to, like, do something else with my life.” So that is a small plus. But that is, like, literally the only plus.

Doug: I mean, one other small plus is that I was planning to go on June 30 to 60th Street and stand there with our recording equipment and talk to people. And now that’s off the calendar, so I guess I can go to the beach.

Sarah: Right. It might be really hot that day, so that’s cool that you don’t have to do that.

Doug: Yeah.

Aaron: All of my—I had just really hostile ideas for what I was gonna do on June 30.

Doug: [laughs] Just to get us back to just pure rage, can I just read you one more quote from Kathy Hochul?

Sarah: Okay.

Doug: This is just unbelievable. She was at the Global Economic Summit in Dublin—and this was at the end of May, so as we’re recording this, just about two and a half, three weeks ago—she talked all about how London, Stockholm, Singapore, Milan have done this. You know, New York, we started talking about this 60 years ago, and finally, she is the one who got it done. And she ended this little speech by saying, “It took a long time because people feared backlash from drivers set in their ways. But much like with housing, if we’re serious about making cities more livable, we must get over that.” That was two and a half weeks ago.

Aaron: Right. So this is the thing. It’s just like, the level at which she’s just destroyed her credibility is stunning. Like, I just don’t think I’ve ever seen something like this happen. Like, someone just immolate their own political credibility.

Doug: Well, and that’s the thing is, like, think about how congestion pricing actually finally happened after, as she’s saying, 60 years. In 2018, 2019, we had the summer of hell. Like, we had these images of people almost literally clawing their way out of broken-down trains.

Aaron: Sweltering subway trains.

Doug: With, like, steam and fog. Like, really, like, absolute crisis in our transportation system. And people were just publicly—you know, Riders Alliance, Transportation Alternatives were publicly shaming Cuomo into finally supporting this and getting it over the finish line. And it took public shame to get him to do it.

Aaron: Yeah.

Doug: And now what she had on Cuomo was that, like, she could run around and say, “I’m the governor who finally got it done. You got rid of that guy. You got me. I got it done.”

Aaron: By the way, she also could have said, “You know what? This was Cuomo’s thing. I happen to be the governor now. I got no choice. My hands are tied.”

Doug: It’s the law.

Aaron: “Look, there could be flaws here, but it’s the law. I’ve gotta implement it. It’s not me. Blame Andrew.” She had a number of different ways to approach this.

Doug: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think Eric Adams is another good example where this is a state program, not a city program, so he is not responsible for it, but he’s come out against it in many different ways. Whereas he could have done exactly that, and then if it worked, which it probably would, he could have just said, “Look at me, I’m the mayor who finally got you—” he takes credit for all kinds of things that aren’t his. And nobody ever gets a political gift like this with an easy out, as you’re saying, Aaron, and a great way to take credit for something you had nothing to do with. And they just botched it completely.

Aaron: What’s also really just so disturbing about this is like, you know, Trump has been making this into a campaign issue. So he’s definitely mentioned congestion pricing. “Democrats want to tax your cars. Democrats want to take away your cars.” It’s become part of this line of attack he has about electric cars and Democrats and cars, which, you know, hey, good for The War on Cars. Like, we’re culturally relevant. So Trump’s been doing this attack, and congestion pricing has been part of it. And I feel like there’s this tendency with Democrats, you know, on the national level to just sort of, like, cave in instead of just sort of pushing back and being like, “You know what? This is actually what we’re doing in Manhattan. This is like the future of the city. This is what the post-pandemic city is gonna be about. It’s gonna be good. We’re doing something big here. We’re doing something innovative.” And whatever. Instead of defending it, they’ve kind of just caved to this, like, brain-wormed Trump attack.

Doug: Two-time popular vote-losing convicted felon. It’s incredible that they think he has any power.

Aaron: Yeah.

Doug: Yeah.

Sarah: And by thinking that he does, they give it to him. And the Democrats have been spiraling into a political incoherency that is rivaled only by the Republican political incoherency.

Aaron: And everyone, you have to go vote for them still.

Doug: Yeah.

Aaron: By the way.

Sarah: [laughs]

Doug: Yeah. I mean, so that’s the other thing. We all kind of …

Aaron: Or we’re doomed.

Doug: Yeah. Well, we talked about this a little bit before we started recording. And, you know, I will be the first as a Jewish American to say you have to vote blue no matter who, as the saying goes, because the alternative is much worse. But I do worry that after so many elections of saying that it’s so demoralizing that we are not voting for a better world, we are only voting to prevent a worse one. And I would like to be excited about who I’m voting for. I would like to really feel like I want to go out there and campaign and donate and organize, but I don’t feel that way. I just feel like—I just want to make sure, like, gay and trans people maintain the minimal rights that they have. I want to make sure that immigrants are not rounded up and tossed out of this country. So please vote for Democrats. Like, yes, I’m gonna do that. And yes, all of you out there should do that. But it is very hard to have any conversation with people and say, “You know, you’re wrong. You really should vote for Democrats.” Like, I don’t blame people for feeling totally demoralized because I do.

Sarah: Yeah.

Aaron: And it really gets—what you’re getting at to me is just a core feeling that this gives me, which is if you can have all of this government, public process, all of this congestion pricing thing, it went through so much to get to this point. And for one person to be able to kind of like, pull the rug out from under it like this just kind of at a whim, it kind of calls into question, like, do we have a functioning government? Do we have a functioning democracy? Because this ain’t it. You know, a functioning democracy doesn’t let Queen Hochul just sort of like, end, like, a huge democratic process this way.

Doug: I mean, as the Supreme Court has shown us, laws are fake.

Aaron: Well, that’s kind of what it’s starting to feel like. And I guess, you know, to your point, Doug, I do feel like it’s as demoralizing as this is, it’s important to remember, like, actually it can get worse. It can get worse. It can get a lot worse.

Doug: It can get a lot worse.

Aaron: So we—so, like, that is really, you know, basically what I’m voting for now.

Doug: Well, the lesser of two evils is still less evil, right? So you have to vote for less evil. That’s not an original line. I’ve heard that many, many times before. Harm prevention is a perfectly valid voting strategy. It just sucks that, like, that’s all we can muster. I will say some positive news, I think. Everybody is now talking about congestion pricing. I think this is a thing that we would have all been talking about had it gone into effect, and that would have been a much better way to talk about it. But I have fielded so many emails and phone calls and texts from friends, old contacts who want to know what they can do to turn this around, who I never thought were transportation advocates of any sort, but who are New York City subway riders, and understand that this would be better for them.

Doug: So, you know, my experience, John Orcutt, who’s a former policy director for DoT, I think he once said that NIMBYism often sows the seeds of its own demise because they make these really ridiculous claims that are so patently false that they cause people who wouldn’t otherwise be paying attention to say that is false and ridiculous. So you have all these people who are now paying attention understand that, like, the elevators might be gone and they might not get one at their local station, or that their commute is gonna get worse or that their planet is going to get a lot hotter, and they want to know what they can do. So it would be great if we didn’t have to go through this process for people to experience that a better world is possible. But I do think that is a silver lining. Like you said, you know, Hochul apparently didn’t seem very prepared for the backlash, and so there was much more of it than even I expected, I think.

Sarah: Yeah. And I want to give a shout out to Transportation Alternatives and Riders Alliance and Tri-State Transportation Campaign in particular for the work that those three organizations have done in organizing an immediate response. There were phone campaigns immediately launched, petitions, there have been rallies planned and are planned for the next few days. So, you know, those are the organizing opportunities that can then positively propel this movement into the future.

Doug: We’re gonna put links to some of those campaigns in the show notes because this is a sort of emergency episode, and we want you to—our War on Cars listeners, especially if you live in the New York region, in New York state, Connecticut, New Jersey, and you are affected by this, you can call the governor’s office at (518) 474-8390. We’ll put a link to that in the show notes as well. And might take a while to get through. Took me a half hour on hold this morning, but you can unload politely on whatever staffer picks up the phone and tell them that you disagree.

Aaron: And call your State Assembly member and your state senator. And those guys actually, you know, technically have the ability to stop this. So call them, too.

Doug: One more thing. We have a lot of listeners who are nowhere near New York City, and we do like to talk to all of you too, although this is obviously a very New York-focused state of emergency. What does this mean for the rest of the country? We have congestion pricing in places like London and Stockholm and Singapore and Milan, but New York would have been the first. What do you guys think?

Aaron: That’s kind of what our last episode with Diana was about. Like, what this—you know, this was a big deal. This was gonna set an example that other cities could follow, and you could show that, like, creating, you know, an urban core with fewer cars and better transit is a big benefit. And I think that is even more true in the post-COVID environment. You know, we actually don’t have a city anymore with, like, as many people driving in as car commuters every day to go work in their office skyscraper jobs. And there was a chance for congestion pricing to show, like, what the future of Manhattan could look like. I was just actually going through the episode description of that episode, and I want to note that we said “There are still lots of details to iron out, and we should never underestimate New York’s ability to blow it when it comes to transportation policy.”

Sarah: [laughs]

Doug: [laughs]

Aaron: “But Diana Lind of the Penn Institute—” so we foreshadowed a little bit. So no, I think there was a real chance here to show a way forward for cities. But once again, we’re in this position, even in a supposedly blue state, where our state legislature really screws over the big cities, which is a problem all across the US.

Sarah: Yeah. And I mean, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to in the last couple of years who are like, “Wow, I’m so excited you have congestion pricing in New York now.” And I have to say to them, “No, we don’t have it quite yet.” I mean, I think a lot of people—it comes as a surprise to some of us who live here, but I think a lot of people, not just in the United States, but in other nations as well, look to New York as a beacon of experimentation and change when it comes to transportation. And they admire a lot of the things that New York has done in the last 15 years, and they were excited to see this. And yeah, it would have given a lot of other places cover to try it, if it had tried, and as it would have probably worked just fine here in New York.

Doug: I have one note of optimism on this particular point. I think had New York tried congestion pricing and it didn’t work, then every other city in America that wanted to do it—Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, let’s say—would have been totally screwed because everybody would have said, “Oh, they tried that. It didn’t reduce traffic, it killed businesses.” Whatever. The political bungling by Kathy Hochul can certainly be replicated by other state governors and legislatures, but if congestion pricing doesn’t happen here because of this reason, it does not preclude another state from saying, “The politics have aligned. We’ve got a great governor, a great mayor, and we can do it, and we can do it right, and we won’t be as ugly and messy as New York was.” So there is that.

Sarah: Yeah. And maybe it could be a kind of a thing where it’d be like, Chicago, here’s your chance.

Doug: Famously well managed and non-corrupt Chicago.

Sarah: Well, no, but to say, like, “You know, these people in New York think they’re all that? They couldn’t even get this done.

Doug: “Greatest city in the world? Look at us, man.”

Sarah: “Look at us. We got this done.” Please take up the challenge, my friends.

Aaron: I don’t know. There’s still some vague, small chance that this could get overturned if we get the right judge. So I’m still hoping it might happen somehow, but it’s not looking great.

Doug: You just have to hope that that judge does not drive to work in Manhattan.

Aaron: Yeah, they probably do.

Sarah: But let’s definitely, like, cover ourselves here. Let’s hedge. Like, this all could turn out well in the end if the MTA board magically—I mean, isn’t the MTA board …

Aaron: Yeah, the MTA board might—you know, they’re sort of, like, on the hook here, and they’re supposed to be in charge of this decision. And, you know, the governor sort of controls the board, but they’re also kind of independent. There’s some things that could happen.

Doug: Yeah, we should sort of explain that, I think. You know, the MTA board sort of acts like a corporate board that cannot act against the fiduciary interests of the agency it represents. And so they can’t very well turn this down.

Aaron: Well, they’re gonna get sued, for sure.

Doug: Right. Without another revenue source to replace this, that just magically swaps one for one, they can’t vote in favor of what the governor is doing here.

Aaron: We should just apologize to the rest of the country for subjecting them to our, like, parochial New York, Brooklyn democratic machine politics. Literally, the whole country is held hostage to two Brooklyn Democratic machine guys right now.

Doug: Yeah. And one dude from Queens who could be our next president, or our last and next president. So, you know, New York, the gift that keeps on giving in so many ways.

Aaron: There you go. You’re welcome, everybody.