by Joe Borelli on May 11, 2023 Media

By Paul Liotta | [email protected]

CITY HALL — Detractors have long characterized New York’s congestion pricing plan as nothing more than a cash grab, but on Thursday, they made the point that that’s no longer even necessary.

A group of elected officials and pro-car activists, led by City Councilman Joseph Borelli (R-South Shore), made the point that new sources of revenue — the increased payroll tax, estimated revenue from incoming city casinos and fare hikes — provide more than enough funding for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

The congestion pricing opponents said that the new revenues, which they estimate to be worth more than $2 billion, will help the MTA meet its financial needs without implementing the congestion pricing plan, which got needed federal approval last week.

“We have heard from the beginning that the MTA needs $1 billion in new revenue to preserve itself in the foreseeable future,” Borelli said. “We have a state budget deal and a state casino deal that basically guarantees that not only will we get $1 billion in funding for the MTA but $2 billion … With that case presented, why do we still need congestion pricing? I believe it’s because congestion pricing is more about the politics of punishment than it is about meeting its initial goals.”

Proponents of the congestion pricing plan — which will charge motorists as much as $23 for entering Manhattan below 61st Street, an area officials call the “Central Business District” — have argued that it will reduce traffic and improve air quality, but opponents have argued those problems will just be moved to other parts of the city.

Manhatttan street congestion pricing Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022
Broadway in Manhattan is is pictured in this file photo. (Staten island Advance/Paul Liotta)

Thursday’s group of opponents included members of the City Council’s Common Sense Caucus — Councilman David Carr (R-Mid-Island), Councilman Bob Holden (D-Queens), Councilman Ari Kagan (R-Brooklyn) and Councilwoman Joann Ariola (R-Queens) — and Assemblyman Michael Tannousis (R-East Shore/South Brooklyn).

The full Common Sense Caucus, which also includes Councilwoman Vickie Paladino (R-Queens), sent a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul presenting the revenue argument and calling for an about face on the congestion pricing plan, officially known as the “Central Business District Tolling Program” by the MTA.

“We are writing to ask that you amend the budget agreement to include a proviso that once the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) receives new revenue from payroll taxes or casinos, it must cease and desist its congestion pricing plan,” the group wrote.

“The truth is, there was never any real justification for moving forward with the Central Business Tolling Program other than generating more revenue for the MTA,” they continued. “However, under the state’s new budget deal, that justification no longer exists.”

Gubernatorial spokesman John Lindsay did not say whether Hochul had reviewed the letter and did not address the argument made by the elected officials, but offered no sign of a course reversal.

On Friday, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) said that the state could move forward with congestion pricing after granting a letter of legal sufficiency about the MTA’s plan.

“Governor Hochul is committed to implementing congestion pricing to reduce traffic, improve air quality, and support our public transit system. We’ve worked closely with partners across government and with community members over the last four years to develop a plan that will achieve these goals,” Lindsay said. “The finding of legal sufficiency is a critical step that will allow our Environmental Assessment to be publicly available for anyone to read, and we will continue to work with our partners to move congestion pricing forward.”

Despite the state’s close work with government partners and community members, it hasn’t been able to convince large swaths of the population about congestion pricing’s efficacy.

Multiple New Jersey officials, including Gov. Phil Murphy, have spoken out about congestion pricing’s impact on their communities and far more liberal elected officials than those gathered Thursday, including Rep. Ritchie Torres, have raised concerns about congestion pricing’s impact on communities far less affluent than Manhattan below 69th Street.

They argue that traffic diverted from the Central Business District will just make its way to places like Staten Island, the South Bronx and Washington Heights, as motorists navigate to their eastern destinations avoiding the tolled part of Manhattan.

“It’s going to hurt working-class New Yorkers more than it’s going to hurt those that have, the so-called 1%-ers that my colleagues in the Council and up in Albany love to vilify. They’re not going to be the ones that have a hard time paying this,” Carr said. “It’s going to be the working-class New Yorkers who commute to the city.”

Borelli challenged proponents of the plan to join him on the Manhattan side of a crossing into the Central Business District and see for themselves that most cars coming in aren’t luxury automobiles, but often economy cars or work vans.

“This is going to have a problematic result for poor people,” he said, before issuing his challenge to proponents of the plan. “Get your Tommy Bahama chair, get some iced tea [and] we’ll sit right behind me in this little square here and we’ll look at the cars … It’s all these people that Manhattanites think they’re never going to need again.”

Several people who spoke Thursday, including Tannousis, called the MTA’s general finances into question, and the effect more rising costs will have on the population in the five boroughs.

“I want every single person out there who’s watching this to know that every single day you go to work so you can fund the MTA. Where is this money going?” he said. “We’re supposed to be attracting business and money into New York City to help our economy, but every single day New York City residents are starting to realize that they’re better off moving, and it is a recipe for disaster.”