June 16, 2024

At an economic summit in Ireland last month, New York Governor Kathy Hochul boasted about her state’s decades-long push to implement so-called congestion pricing in New York. Within months, the expanded toll system was ready to go into effect, charging cars and trucks a one-time fee between $15 and $36 to enter lower Manhattan — a move that, in addition to the quality-of-life benefits promised by Hochul, to both drastically reduce carbon emissions in one of the country’s most congested regions and also provide much-needed funding for its most extensive mass transit system.

“It took a long time because people were afraid of backlash from drivers who got in their way,” she said in her speech. “We have to get over it.”

Ultimately, however, Hochul himself could not get over this fear. On Wednesday, the governor announced an “indefinite” shutdown of the soon-to-debut show. In doing so, she not only has a road-ready policy to improve the quality of life in New York, but also the “nation-leading climate plan” it is one of the governor’s signature initiatives.

In fact, New York’s ambitious climate goals — reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and 85 percent by 2050 — are the current governor’s. The state has her landmark climate law back in 2019, but since then its success has been far from certain. That’s largely because the effort depends on many factors beyond state government’s control: the completion of large wind farms in the waters off Long Island, the construction of a electricity transmission line bringing carbon-free hydropower to the state, and retrofitting thousands of old and inefficient buildings in New York, among others.

One thing the government could however, control was congestion pricing, a plan that underwent years of consultation, modeling and study that confidently demonstrated that it would dramatically reduce car traffic in New York City, ease congestion and reduce air pollution from vehicle tailpipes. Modeled after successful programs in London and other European cities, the toll policy has traveled a long way toward approval since then-mayor Michael Bloomberg began pushing for it in earnest around 2007. It was finally set to become a reality this month, after years of strict environmental scrutiny and political strife. Then, on Wednesday, Hochul ordered the Metropolitan Transit Authority to “pause indefinitely” the program, saying it would have placed an “undue strain” on drivers and “another burden on middle-class New Yorkers.”

The sudden decision, reportedly an attempt to court electors in contested congressional districts in suburbs outside the city, all but doomed what was a landmark climate policy more than a decade in the making. (The governor’s office did not immediately respond to Grist’s request for comment Wednesday afternoon.) It also left many transit and climate advocates reeling and clouding the state’s path to meeting its already lackluster climate goals.

“We can’t tackle climate change without addressing transportation,” said Sara Lind, the co-executive director of Open Plans, an urban advocacy group in New York. “Cancelling it is a big mistake in terms of our approach to climate change. We need our Democratic governor to be a leader on climate change, but she’s just saying goodbye.

Indeed, transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in New York State and the second largest source of emissions in New York City, just behind the city’s buildings. It is also the largest source of air pollution from harmful tailpipe chemicals such as nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide, which cause asthma and a host of other lung and heart diseases.

The MTA’s analysis of the program found that congestion pricing would reduce traffic into lower Manhattan by about 17 percent, reducing the city’s overall carbon emissions by about 1 percent, as drivers chose to take public transit instead of driving, and less gasoline in the process burned. These effects would have been most significant in downtown Manhattan, where the policy would have reduced greenhouse gas pollution by more than 11 percent.

The policy was also projected to promote a virtuous cycle in the city: the MTA estimated it would collect about $1 billion a year in tolls, and it planned to use that money to finance a $15 billion bond issue to anchor capital work on New York’s aging but heavily used public transit system. Upgrades and expansions in the subway and bus system would likely have encouraged more residents to take mass transit rather than drive.

Similar congestion pricing systems have achieved air quality benefits in places such as London, Singapore and Stockholm, where carbon emissions with about 10 percent when it rolled out a toll program. A recent one analysis of 16 such systems found that they “offer local governments a relatively cost-effective tool to implement consistent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Despite the data, the congestion pricing plan had many opponents, from New Jersey’s Democratic Governor Phil Murphy on Republican state representatives on Long Island. Many of these opponents see the $15-a-day congestion charge as a regressive tax on low-income drivers in the outer boroughs and suburbs. The MTA’s analysis found that these concerns were overblown. According to the agency there are only 5,200 residents in New York City who commute to Manhattan by car and live more than half a mile away from some form of public transportation. The agency also promised to create a toll exemption for low-income drivers, though that category is estimated to include only 18,000 drivers in the entire New York metropolitan area, which is home to more than 20 million people.

The plan has also drawn criticism from some community advocates in outer districts such as the Bronx and Staten Island, which argued that discouraging traffic into Manhattan would increase pollution burdens in their neighborhoods. The MTA found that these increases would be minuscule, but that too promised to mitigate them by taking steps like electrifying diesel trucks in pollution hotspots like the Bronx’s Hunts Point Food Market.

But this year, as the policy moved closer to a reality, most New York politicians and interest groups sought to support it. Even the Real Estate Board of New York, or REBNY, a powerful lobby that supported Hochul, expressed disappointment with her decision to scrap the toll program.

“Congestion pricing will provide environmental and transportation benefits that will make New York City more competitive on the national and international stage,” REBNY President James Whelan said in a statement. “Any delay in its implementation should be of limited duration.”

In the pre-recorded video announcing her decision, Hochul said that “there is never just one way forward.” Indeed, says Lind, there are other measures New York can take to reduce transport emissions: The city can limit freight traffic deliveries to certain periods of the day, as other cities such as e.g. Barcelona and Rome did, or it could limit driving in neighborhoods. But the state’s best weapon to discourage driving is the MTA itself, and it’s hard to imagine the beleaguered agency upgrading its subway and bus systems without the billion-dollar boost that would have come from the congestion toll.

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