The Slow Walk: MTA Has Not Met with Environmental Leaders Vital to Congestion Pricing — But Feds Blame MTA for That

Is it though? Photo: Association for a Better New York
Is it though? Photo: Association for a Better New York

Slow walk this way?

Environmental justice advocates have not heard from the MTA about congestion pricing, even though the authority’s delayed environmental assessment for the traffic toll must include an environmental justice angle — and the federal government is waiting for action.

“I can tell you that I certainly haven’t been reached out to,” said New York City Environmental Justice Alliance Executive Director Eddie Bautista. “It’s hard for me to imagine that if the MTA wanted to reach out to environmental justice groups, and there was a group called the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, well it’s kind of hard to miss us.”

As is necessary in any environmental assessment, the MTA is required to consider the project’s impact not only on traffic or pollution, but also its impact on environmental justice. The MTA claims it has failed to begin reaching out to environmental groups because of the federal government’s demand for “enhanced coordination and public involvement.”

The feds deny that. And advocates are just flabbergasted.

“What guidance are they looking for; what magic consultation process is the federal DOT going to come up with?,” Bautista said. “They’re going to tell you reach out to stakeholders, it’s not rocket science.

“Enhance it, pick up the phone. Hit ‘send’ on the email,” he added.

Tri-State Transportation Committee Executive Director Renae Reynolds, who has worked on environmental justice issues for years, was suspicious of the MTA, suggesting that the agency has been to this very kind of rodeo before.

“This is not the first time that the MTA has done an EA, so they should know how the process works,” Reynolds told Streetsblog. “If there’s a matter of language change, then they should develop the channels with U.S. DOT or the Federal Highway Administration to get a quick response on those things. That’s not something that the MTA should need hand-holding on.”

Oh, but hand-holding is exactly what the MTA claims it is waiting for. Officially, the MTA has said that the FHWA has asked for a kind of enhanced process, making it harder for the MTA to get federal approval for each forward step in its mandated creation of the environmental assessment for congestion pricing. Even now — more than four months since the U.S. DOT gave the MTA approval to conduct its scaled-down environmental assessment — the agency says it’s still waiting to hear if its plan for environmental justice outreach is up to snuff.

“The federal government must sign off on our environmental justice plan, which has not happened yet,” said Ken Lovett, senior adviser to the MTA’s acting chairman and CEO Janno Lieber. “We expect that will happen soon and the outreach will begin.”

But the federal government is saying it’s up to the MTA to drive to the hoop.

“The local stakeholders have to submit a timeline on the [environmental] process to FHWA so that the FHWA can approve, so the ball is in their court,” said a federal source who is familiar with the matter. “That is not being slow-walked on the FHWA side.”

And a spokesperson for the FHWA added, “FHWA’s NY division has made itself fully available to [the MTA] and has been actively engaged.”

The state legislature and Gov. Cuomo approved congestion pricing in 2019, but the traffic toll has been stuck in a kind of netherworld since that one triumph, because federal approval is necessary to allow the state to toll roads that have been built with federal money. For almost two years, the Trump administration said that it was studying whether the MTA would need to do an environmental assessment or the more complicated and time-consuming environmental impact statement, but that red signal turned into a green shortly after Joe Biden succeeded Trump.

The MTA had previously suggested it could complete the assessment in a matter of months, which environmental law experts said was an aggressive, but achievable schedule. The agency has at least held preliminary talks with the state of Connecticut, but hasn’t spoken with the more congestion pricing-resistant New Jersey government. At the MTA Board meeting last month, then-MTA CEO and Chairman Pat Foye said that the MTA was still waiting on the federal government to approve its outreach plan for both states.

Other evidence that the MTA and Gov. Cuomo are stalling on congestion pricing abounds:

The MTA has not convened the Traffic Mobility Review Board, a six-person panel that’s supposed to recommend the price of the congestion pricing tolls and any potential exemptions or credits given out to drivers. Mayor de Blasio nominated his one panel appointee, Finance Commissioner Sherif Soliman, to the TMRB in June, but the MTA Board has not appointed the remaning five members of the panel.

Throughout the Trump era, Cuomo suggested that the president was holding congestion pricing hostage as an act of political revenge, but the embattled governor seems to still be relying on that excuse long after Trump has been exiled to Mar-a-Lago.

“With congestion pricing, the state passed it, the MTA can enact it. … The federal government just has to approve it. It doesn’t cost them a penny, just approve it. Approve it now,” Cuomo said in late July at an Association for a Better New York breakfast.

Cuomo’s comments aside, there is little evidence of urgency from the state, which at one point claimed it could complete an environmental assessment in mere months if only President Trump would get out of the way. But the governor has also kept congestion pricing at arm’s length. For instance, he admitted that he didn’t raise the issue with then-President Trump at a meeting in May, 2020 and didn’t bring it up with then-President Elect Biden in November, 2020; and Cuomo’s hand-picked MTA CFO Bob Foran recently told the agency’s board that it was OK if congestion pricing was delayed because the MTA doesn’t yet need the $15 billion in bonds the tolls will generate (which must have been a shock to agency officials who have long supported congestion pricing as a linchpin of maintaining regional subway and rail service).

In fact, the delays will cost New Yorkers in money and lives, as Streetsblog has reported. As a result, Mayor de Blasio and his likely successor Eric Adams have stepped up the criticism of Gov. Cuomo for stalling.

Lovett said that the MTA is “moving expeditiously” to get the crucial outreach to environmental justice groups going because “52 percent of the project’s nearly 30-county study area is minority and 13 percent have household incomes below the poverty level.”

And that’s exactly why advocates are looking for action.

“With each passing day, traffic congestion is worsening our air is being further polluted and the MTA is leaving more and more resources on the table that are necessary to upgrade and expand the subway system,” said NYC-EJA Transportation Planner Kevin Garcia. “And all of this is taking place while we are still in a pandemic that continues to disproportionately impact BIPOC communities and folks with pre existing community conditions. So, it’s imperative that the environmental assessment is completed with input from EJ communities and organizations.”