New York City’s aging subway system was supposed to receive hundreds of millions of dollars for upgrades this year — a windfall that had been badly needed even before the coronavirus pandemic decimated the system’s ridership and finances.
But the fate of a congestion pricing plan to help pay for the work has been clouded by the fall of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, whose resignation threw the leadership of the country’s largest transit agency, and its agenda, into doubt.
It was Mr. Cuomo who in 2019, after years of resistance, pushed New York to become the first American city to embrace congestion pricing — the imposition of fees on drivers entering the busiest parts of Manhattan, from 60th Street to the Battery. The plan, which was expected to bring in a billion dollars a year to finance public transportation in the New York area, was seen both as a bold challenge to the nation’s entrenched car culture and a way to build a 21st-century transit network.
Now, congestion pricing is among a handful of Mr. Cuomo’s crucial transportation projects that remain unfinished and fall to his successor, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, including construction of the next section of the Second Avenue subway in Manhattan and the modernization of Pennsylvania Station and Kennedy International Airport.
Ms. Hochul has not yet said whether she intends to support congestion pricing. She comes from the western part of the state where residents rely on cars more far more than on public transit and are generally hostile to new taxes and fees.
Her spokeswoman said Sunday night that the future governor is considering her stance on the issue. “Lieutenant Governor Hochul has supported congestion pricing in the past, but the pace and timing is something she will need to evaluate further given the constantly changing impact of Covid-19 on commuters,” she said.
As governor, Ms. Hochul will control the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the largest public transit agency in North America, which operates the subway, buses and two commuter rails.
The M.T.A. is struggling to attract more riders and faces a precarious financial future despite an influx of federal pandemic aid that has temporarily stabilized its operations.
“This transition in Albany comes at a crisis moment for our subways and buses,” said Betsy Plum, the executive director of Riders Alliance, an advocacy group. “Public transit must top Governor Hochul’s packed agenda from Day 1.”
Congestion pricing was seen as the answer to the city’s transit needs when state lawmakers authorized the policy in 2019. Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat and car enthusiast who for years balked at the idea, declared in an interview at the time that “congestion pricing is the greatest opportunity we have had.”
It also promised to alleviate the city’s gridlock and reduce climate-changing pollution from vehicle emissions. Traffic will almost certainly get worse when the city fully reopens and commuters and visitors come back in bigger numbers. Crossings at major bridges and tunnels to New York from New Jersey have already climbed to about 98 percent of prepandemic levels, according to tolling data.
Even before Mr. Cuomo’s resignation, the plan was taking much longer to implement than expected.
Critics wondered whether the governor, who had been planning to run for re-election next year, was slow-walking its implementation to avoid angering suburban voters. Mr. Cuomo, in turn, blamed the federal government, which has to provide final approval, for the delays.
“The state passed it; the M.T.A. can enact it,” Mr. Cuomo said during a recent speech. “The federal government just has to approve it. Doesn’t cost them a penny. Just approve it, but approve it now.”
Andy Byford, the former subway chief who left the M.T.A. after clashing with Mr. Cuomo, said he was bewildered by the delays in rolling out congestion pricing, especially since the Trump administration, which had done little to advance the plan, was no longer in power.
“I am puzzled and disappointed to see that New York still hasn’t enacted congestion charging when the apparent barriers now seem to be out of the way,” said Mr. Byford, who now runs the subway and bus system in London, which brought in congestion pricing 18 years ago.
Even if congestion pricing gets Ms. Hochul’s backing, it could be two more years before it kicks off.
Before the tolls can start, the M.T.A. must conduct a federally mandated environmental assessment of the congestion pricing plan, which will examine its potential impact on traffic, air quality and the economy of the city and surrounding region. The plan can proceed if federal officials determine it creates no significant negative environmental impact.
The M.T.A. plans to announce this month that the environmental review is scheduled to take 16 months, M.T.A. officials said.
The agency also has to appoint a six-member Traffic Mobility Review Board to recommend how much drivers would have to pay to enter the congestion zone, and to approve any credits, discounts or exemptions, though the M.T.A. has the final say on its board’s recommendations. The members will include one recommended by the New York City mayor, and one from each of the regions served by its two commuter railroads.
The federal government has required the M.T.A. to develop a particularly demanding public outreach plan that includes low-income and minority communities and tribal nations.
Across the Hudson River, Governor Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat with close ties to the Biden administration, is among several of that state’s elected officials who have been openly critical of the tolls, which could heavily affect New Jersey residents. Mr. Murphy is seeking a second term in November.
The delay has some critics hoping that congestion pricing never comes to fruition.
“I hope it dies the death of a thousand cuts,” said City Councilman Joseph Borelli, a Republican from Staten Island, who called congestion pricing a bad and unpopular policy that would benefit Manhattan at the expense of residents of the other boroughs and suburbs who rely on their cars.
M.T.A. officials say congestion pricing was initially delayed 20 months by the Trump administration, which said it was determining the level of environmental review needed, but also did not seem inclined to help local Democratic leaders.
Nancy Singer, a spokeswoman for the Federal Highway Administration, said the agency issued a key decision on the environmental review process just two months into the Biden administration. “The goal is to get this right and to ensure that this process works for the community,” she said.
In recent weeks, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was himself a slow convert to congestion pricing, has blamed the M.T.A.
“Once the Biden administration unlocked the process, the M.T.A. should have sprung into action,” said Mitch Schwartz, a spokesman for Mr. de Blasio. “Instead, over four months later, the environmental review is barely underway and the state hasn’t formed the Traffic Mobility Review yet.”
Ken Lovett, an M.T.A. spokesman, said transit officials have been “working aggressively behind the scenes to move the project along,” including having detailed discussions with federal officials over how to conduct the environmental review.
But Samuel I. Schwartz, a former city traffic commissioner who supports congestion pricing, said he believed the process could be faster and that the real hurdle was concern among state officials that they could face a backlash from voters in next year’s elections.
“As a cynic, I suspect there’s a lot of stalling going on,” Mr. Schwartz said. “There is no plan, and even without any plan, there’s a fair amount of screaming about it.’’
The result is that the public transit system will lose out on a projected billion dollars in revenue for every year that passes without a congestion plan, and there will be no relief from traffic or pollution.
“The longer we delay congestion pricing, we’re denying New Yorkers the benefits that were promised with congestion pricing,” said Andrew Rein, the president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a government watchdog group that recently released congestion pricing recommendations.
The projected congestion pricing revenue would be used to secure $15 billion in bonds for transit projects and is the largest source of funding for the M.T.A.’s $51 billion capital plan, which includes modernization of subway signals, upgrading of stations and purchase of new train cars and buses.
The M.T.A. has said the congestion pricing delay would not immediately affect the capital plan since the agency has enough money to move ahead with projects for now.
If congestion pricing goes ahead, its toll system will be operated and maintained by TransCore, a private company based in Nashville, which in October 2019 was awarded a $507 million M.T.A. contract to design, build and operate the toll system equipment and infrastructure. The company has already begun a preliminary design of the system and tested different equipment and technology.
Once the plan receives federal approval, TransCore has up to 310 days to start the tolls in Manhattan.
Eddie Bautista, the executive director the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, which represents low-income communities of color that are exposed to traffic and pollution, said the M.T.A. should be moving faster, including appointing the traffic review board.
“Why is congestion pricing lagging behind when we have the ability to move it faster?” he said. “Every day of delay means people’s lives are at stake.”
Mr. Cuomo’s downfall has now injected further uncertainty.
“The current political turmoil in New York I fear will only exacerbate the delay and the lack of focus on getting the congestion charge in,” Mr. Byford said.