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The break for congestion pricing in Hochul is stuck in traffic

Will state lawmakers spend their last few hours in Albany trying to save Gov. Kathy Hochul’s plan to eliminate the congestion charge? Or will they refuse, potentially setting up an epic MTA board meeting that would force the transit agency’s stewards to make an agonizing choice: side with the governor and destroy the MTA’s finances, or challenge her and move forward with starting the congestion charge in June 30.

Although Hochul herself has completely disappeared from the public eye since making her shocking, pre-recorded video announcement — her office isn’t even responding to reporters’ questions — legislative leaders in the State Assembly and Senate began testing potential replacements for the $1 billion that should bring the congestion charge into the MTA’s coffers.

First they had proposed an increase in the payroll mobility tax, but by Friday afternoon that idea was dead, mainly because everyone from state lawmakers to the corporate bigwigs to the city’s independent budget office to the belt tighteners at the Citizens Budget Committee thought it was a stupid idea. Why eliminate the congestion charge to help “working class New Yorkers” and replace it with a tax that would literally fall on working class New Yorkers? (It doesn’t matter that people in the suburbs don’t pay it!)

Then lawmakers started talking about a literal “IOU” they could issue to the MTA in the form of $1 billion, payable in 2025. What would this language look like on paper? Where would the money come from? No one could say for sure, but good congestion pricing advocates have identified the biggest problem with the IOU plan: It doesn’t give the MTA nearly enough of the money it needs and should get from tolling cars in Lower Manhattan .

This is because the $1 billion in annual, recurring congestion charges were used to raise $15 billion in government bonds. That $15 billion was a large portion of the MTA’s capital budget set aside for new electric buses, elevator repairs, new subway signals, the expansion of the Second Avenue Subway and simply keeping the system alive.

An IOU for $1 billion in one-time revenue is just that – an IOU – and the government cannot issue bonds on it. Not $15 billion.

On Friday afternoon, the Senate saw that the votes for an admission of guilt were not there and aborted the conference meeting. Carl Heastie, the Speaker of the General Assembly, addressed reporters and said what other politicians have not dared to say so bluntly: Governor Hochul did this for purely political reasons.

“I’ve been one of the longest advocates for congestion pricing, even when Bloomberg came up with this,” Heastie said. “But as far as the governor is concerned, she has her own idea of ​​where she thinks our polls have actually gone wrong on congestion pricing and she has made the call.”

Heastie added that he thought the question of whether the congestion charge would begin on June 30 as planned had already been resolved. “I think what’s happening with congestion pricing, I think that’s already been decided, I would say at least the slowdown,” Heastie said.

But…is that true? Can Governor Hochul just cancel or pause congestion pricing with a YouTube video?

Not according to the government watchdog group Reinvent Albany, which is a strong supporter of congestion pricing.

“Congestion pricing is required under a 2019 state law. Governors must follow the law,” the group wrote in an FAQ about the current power struggle. “The Legislature would have to vote to change the law or the timelines it establishes or the MTA will be required to implement it.”

Reinvent Albany says if anyone can eliminate congestion pricing, it’s the MTA board. Even then, they would still need some assurance that the MTA has its $15 billion, otherwise the board members would be breaching their fiduciary duty to repeal the toll. “We fail to see how it is possible for the MTA board to fulfill its fiduciary duty by defunding the MTA,” they concluded.

Oh yeah, and the state legislators were supposed to leave Albany today because it’s the last day of the session (and Carl Heastie has a flight to catch tomorrow?). If you’re guessing whether Hochul’s overload bomb ruins Albany’s already shitty business at the end of the session, you’d be right.

New Yorkers who support congestion pricing are burning lawmakers’ phones, while many powerful lawmakers and advocacy groups are urging the governor to change his mind again. We may be in for a long night.

“We are debasing ourselves as a legislative body to provide cover for an ignorant governor,” an Assembly source told Hell Gate. “Congestion pricing is a law and you can’t just ignore it because a poll made you nervous. What are we actually doing here?”

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