NY Republicans campaigning against Midtown congestion toll plan

September 4, 2022

New York Post

By Carl Campanile, David Meyer and Zach Williams

Congestion pricing is becoming the GOP’s sharpest political tool against Democrats in key New York midterm races.

Republicans are trying to use the controversial plan to impose a big toll on motorists entering Midtown Manhattan against Dems in races for governor, state Legislature and even Congress.

Growing fights over toll exemptions have only added fuel to attacks.

“Instead of this Hunger Games-like battle over special exemptions from the new congestion pricing scam, the better solution is to just stop this Hochul Hike altogether,” GOP gubernatorial candidate Rep. Lee Zeldin tweeted Aug. 28.

Drivers could face $9 to $23 in fees during peak hours to drive into parts of Manhattan by late 2023, according to the MTA’s preliminary congestion pricing plan.

Disgraced ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Democratic-run state Legislature approved tolling drivers entering Manhattan south of 60th Street in 2019 to curb congestion and raise an annual $1 billion to help finance mass transit.

The plan puts some commuters in a bind. Many motorists in the outer-boroughs and suburbs want improvements to subway and commuter rail lines but don’t want to pay the new toll — and are clamoring for exemptions or discounts.

Hochul, who was Cuomo’s hand-picked lieutenant governor in the administration when the tolling plan got the green light, backs it.

“I support congestion pricing, 100%,” Hochul said during a Democratic primary debate for governor in June.

Zeldin, her Republican rival for governor from Long Island, has seized on the issue with growing intensity.

“At a time when they need financial help the most, Kathy Hochul wants to turn the screws on struggling New Yorkers upward of another $34.50 a day,” Zeldin said in a Post Op-Ed column, citing record inflation as hurting already struggling New Yorkers.

“As if it wasn’t bad enough that this Hochul Hike would raise another $1 billion a year on the backs of hardworking New Yorkers, with no changes that would force the MTA to spend this taxpayer money more efficiently or effectively, the kicker is, historically, congestion pricing has failed spectacularly at its stated goals,” he added.

It costs the MTA far more per square mile to build a new subway track than anywhere in the world, reports reveal, blamed in part on lax union work rules. 

Zeldin has claimed congestion pricing has been a bust in London and critics worry diverting traffic away from Manhattan will just send it to poor, already traffic-choked areas of The Bronx and elsewhere.

The toll plan has also emerged as a major issue in state legislative races, particularly on Long Island, where Republican candidate Jack Martins faces off against Democratic incumbent Sen. Anna Kaplan in Nassau County’s 7th District.

“Congestion pricing will hurt middle class families here on Long Island. These are the men and women, police officers, firefighters, construction  office and service workers who will be forced to pay this tax, having had little say in how the program was enacted, designed and implemented,” said Martins, a former three-term state senator.

“It’s not only bad for their own family budgets, already stretched by inflation, but also damaging for our region’s economy and growth. These impacts must be recognized and addressed.”

Kaplan, who voted for congestion pricing as part of the state budget in 2019, defended her stance during a recent MTA hearing on the plan, calling the program one that “stands to be a huge win for our region — $1 billion invested annually in our mass transit and our subway.”

Kaplan also noted $100 million or 10% of the revenues will be earmarked for the Long Island Rail Road, and claimed the program will prevent fare hikes for LIRR commuters.

“When we set out to enact congestion pricing in 2019, we were trying to address chronic problems impacting — traffic and the lack of investment in our public transit.,” she said. “Unfortunately, the pandemic has only made these problems worse, straining finances at the MTA and putting new investment at the Long Island Rail Road at risk.”

She did say any carve-outs or exemptions should be done fairly by region.

Asked about Martins’ criticism of the plan, a Kaplan spokesman said, “Either Jack Martins doesn’t believe Long Islanders deserve new trains or he’d rather enact a real commuter tax by raising ticket prices for LIRR riders to pay for them.”

Congestion pricing also has become fodder in races for Congress.

Republican Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, who represents Staten Island and southern Brooklyn, recently held a press conference with New Jersey Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer to denounce the plan.

“The fact that the City, State, and MTA are proposing a congestion tax to make up for lost revenue after they’ve received billions in federal assistance and opportunities to apply for matching grants through the federal infrastructure bill is absurd and goes to show how mismanaged the authority is,” Malliotakis said.

“Go after toll evaders, turnstile jumpers, and make New York City’s transit safe so more residents and tourists ride, but stop treating New Yorkers and American taxpayers like ATMs. The MTA is a notorious blackhole and the Inspector General should audit every federal dollar the MTA has received. Enough is enough.”

GOP candidate Michael Lawler, a member of the state Assembly who’s running against Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney in Hudson Valley’s 17th Congressional District, also is beating the drum against the toll.

“A congestion pricing tax will divert truck traffic into areas with some of the highest asthma rates in the country,” Lawler said in an Aug. 25 statement.

Revealing how politically fraught the issue is, even some Democratic candidates are distancing themselves and outright opposing the Midtown toll plan approved by fellow Democrats.

While Lawler has attacked Maloney on the issue, the incumbent Dem told The Post on Sunday he too opposes the current plan.

“I strongly oppose any congestion pricing proposal that would unfairly penalize commuters from the Hudson Valley who play a vital role in our state’s economy,” he said. 

Max Rose, the former Democratic congressman in a rematch against Malliotakis in the 11th Congressional District, also slammed the plan as cooked up by “idiotic bureaucrats.” Malliotakis defeated him in 2020.

“Congestion pricing masquerades as a climate initiative but it is actually a thinly veiled effort designed by idiotic bureaucrats to generate revenue on the backs of outer borough residents who have no access to public transit. The state must do everything in its power to stop it in its tracks,” said Rose.

Transit advocates said the tolling plan will become popular following implementation, despite the doomsday statements from “pandering politicians.”

“Everywhere it’s been implemented, congestion pricing has been less popular before it starts than afterwards. The fact that we’ve had an exceptionally long and windy road to implementation means it’s no surprise that pandering politicians of all stripes have come out against the one policy that will fix the subway, speed emergency response times, and make it easier to breathe in New York,” said Riders Alliance spokesman Danny Pearlstein.

“Jack Martins spent years fighting against a third track to relieve train congestion and end car traffic backups at grade crossings on Long Island. He left office and the project got built. That was in his own neighborhood, so it’s not surprising he doesn’t care about congestion and air quality in Manhattan either.”