Mayor: Congestion Pricing Can Wait Until President Biden Deals with COVID and Stimulus

Cars. Cars cars cars. Photo: Cars
Cars. Cars cars cars. Photo: Cars

Open thread — is it just us, or is no one caring enough about congestion pricing?

At a news conference on Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio became the latest public official to admit he is not pestering President-Elect Biden to move quickly on a key initiative that wouldn’t cost the federal government a penny — an already passed tolling scheme for central and Lower Manhattan that President Trump has, for no stated reasons, blocked.

“I’ll be real straightforward with you, my focus is three things: a clear coronavirus strategy for the country, and that will help New York City intensely…; a vaccine that people can believe in…; and a stimulus to help New York City get back on its feet,” de Blasio told reporters, one day after he said he had “calls out to the president-elect the vice-president elect” to discuss “what will help New York City.”

“Later,” de Blasio added, “we will absolutely focus on congestion pricing as well.”

De Blasio admitted that he hasn’t spoken to Biden or Vice President-elect Harris, but has spoken to “a couple members of [the] transition team to let them know our focus.”

De Blasio, of course, is not the only public official who has gone quiet on congestion pricing after championing it as a linchpin to saving the transit system by raising $1 billion a year in tolls that would be converted to $15 billion in bonding capability. Last year, Gov. Cuomo called congestion pricing “the only logical and realistic option to provide an ongoing and dedicated revenue stream to the MTA.”

Since the election of Joe Biden as president, the governor has not said a word about this “only logical option.” Like de Blasio, he has spoken generally of the need for a stimulus and for the federal government to lead a more coherent COVID strategy. Earlier in the pandemic, Cuomo admitted to Streetsblog that he declined a chance to bring up congestion pricing when he had the president’s ear.

A global pandemic is certainly a priority, but congestion pricing doesn’t need anything except federal approval, which the Trump administration has declined to give, choosing to neither explain its qualms nor explain to state leaders what they need to do to smooth over those qualms.

Meanwhile, advocates are getting nervous. Danny Pearlstein of Riders Alliance put it succinctly: “Now more than ever, New Yorkers need all of our elected leaders championing the future of public transit.”

“The federal government needs to approve congestion pricing as quickly as possible,” added Pearlstein. “The MTA faces its worst ever fiscal crisis and still needs to fix a subway that’s more than a century old. Meanwhile, Manhattan car traffic has roared back even with very few people returning to their offices. … As we continue to fight COVID, New York needs a congestion toll to fund public transit and ease traffic for buses and ambulances.”

Elected officials have said in the past that only a Biden election could save congestion pricing. But now that Biden is weeks away from moving to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the momentum has apparently slowed. But then again, maybe it must, said Ben Fried of TransitCenter, who agreed with de Blasio that the federal government needs to focus on the biggest of the big ticket items.

“The most important thing for NYC is to ensure any forthcoming relief bill includes funding for the MTA to bridge its enormous budget gap,” said Fried. “Congestion pricing will help, and it’s important to get it in place as soon as possible, but the need for transit emergency relief is much, much greater than what congestion pricing can provide, and we need it much sooner than the congestion fee can be implemented. Getting a big number for transit in any COVID aid package has to be federal priority number one for NYC.”