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Ida Heightens NYC’s Need for Congestion Pricing Funds

With the city’s transit system badly flooded by the hurricane’s rains, calls have grown to increase capital spending now to upgrade subways and buses. But fees from the road tolling program are many months away.

A flooded subway station in New York City.
New York City commuters walk into a flooded subway station and disrupted service due to extremely heavy rainfall from the remnants of Hurricane Ida on Sept. 2, 2021.
(David Dee Delgado/Getty Images/TNS)
New York City’s streets and subways on Wednesday night looked apocalyptic, as the so-called dregs of Hurricane Ida swept over the city with terrifying speed.

Water gushed into train stations, submerged cars on the streets, and drowned numerous residents who lived in basement apartments.

At a press conference at a Queens bus depot on Thursday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said that many resilience projects along the coastline — spurred by Hurricane Sandy — had “really held firm.” But this time the flooding wasn’t from salt water, but from an unprecedented rainfall that showed there hasn’t been enough attention paid to resiliency in streets and subways.

“There’s too many drainage systems incapable of handling that volume of water,” said Hochul. “We need to assess the damage, where we had the worst flooding in the subways, because this is not going to happen every 500 years. This may happen again next week.”
Hochul said she had spoken to New York’s senators and President Joe Biden, and that she had told them that “we need those infrastructure dollars.”

But many New York City transportation advocates are frustrated that federal regulatory requirements demanded by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) have delayed a different source of funds: a congestion fee for cars entering Manhattan.

After passing the New York Legislature in 2019, it was sent to USDOT for approval. The Trump administration proceeded to sit on the congestion pricing scheme for 20 months and New York agencies were only given feedback once Biden was in office.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) then released a schedule for 16 months of federally mandated community engagement and insisted that they did not require capital funds immediately anyway.
Advocates say yesterday’s tragedy shows that more urgency is required.

“I certainly hope [this speeds up their timetable],” says Daniel Pearlstein, policy and communications director with the Riders Alliance. “We have less than 10 years to stop runaway climate change and many decades of deferred subway maintenance to address. It seems irrational to spend 16 months listening to the critics, nearly a year on installation, and who knows how long in litigation.”

It is not yet clear what the cost of Ida will be to the MTA. There could be sharp swings in the scale of damage depending on how many trains and buses were able to be pulled back to flood staging areas in time. (Service continued during the storm too, so a certain number of vehicles sustained damage from submersion and there have been reports of trains trapped in tunnels.) Concrete and other ferrous materials in the tunnels will not have been as damaged by an inundation of freshwater, in contrast with the salty floods of Hurricane Sandy.

“If it does turn out that this caused extensive damage to rolling stock, track and stations, maybe [MTA and USDOT could accelerate their schedule],” says Ben Fried, communications director for Transit Center, an advocacy group. “But I think politically it would have to rise to that emergency level to change things.”

Critics of the federally mandated delay note that such requirements can be eased or done away with altogether. When New York state lawmakers passed enabling legislation in 2019, they exempted the congestion pricing policy from state and local environmental review. Similar actions have been taken in California for projects that are clearly environmentally beneficial.

Also, congestion pricing isn’t an intensive capital project like a highway or subway line, which once built could never be reversed. Local residents of a particular block or neighborhood may have an immediate interest in such a project, while congestion pricing is a regulatory question that affects millions of people, limiting the conventional rationale for community engagement around infrastructure projects.

But it is probably too late for such arguments now. USDOT could have issued a “categorical exclusion” earlier this year, and not called for an environmental assessment. But reversing course dramatically now could open them up to litigation.

Asked for comment, a press representative of USDOT pointed to an Aug. 18 letter the agency sent to New York transportation officials, which includes this line: “We will work to accelerate milestones, if possible, as long as engagement with the public and stakeholders is not shortchanged.”

The MTA argues that the 16-month timeline is already an expedited timeline and that they aren’t ruling out the possibility that it gets done earlier.

“As far as the repairs for [storm damage], we are hoping FEMA will cover the repairs,” says Kenneth Lovett, senior adviser to the MTA’s chairman and CEO. “I don’t think this has anything to do with congestion pricing. The schedule was based on federal requirements, we can’t cut corners, we can’t just unilaterally say we’re going to move it up. As fast as we can do it, we’ll get it done.”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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