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Economy

Kathy Hochul’s Climate Betrayal

Delaying congestion pricing is one of the worst climate policy decisions made by any Democrat in recent memory.

Kathy Hochul.
Hochul, congestion pricing, and affordability
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

If it holds, then Governor Kathy Hochul’s decision today to delay congestion pricing indefinitely in New York will be a generational setback for climate policy in the United States.

It is one of the worst climate policy decisions made by a Democrat at any level of government in recent memory.

It is worse than the Mountain Valley pipeline, the 300-mile gas pipeline that Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia got approved in 2022 in exchange for supporting the Inflation Reduction Act.

And it is worse than the Willow project in Alaska, the oil mega-project that President Joe Biden okayed last year under pressure from that state’s local and indigenous leaders.

It is so bad because it will set back the development of climate-friendly cities and rapid transit infrastructure in the United States for years if not decades. And it will deter other American cities from implementing the kind of time-saving, pollution-averting, anti-gridlock measure that the country desperately needs.

There is nothing good to be said for this decision. It is bad politics, bad economics, bad governance, and bad for the climate.

Let us briefly count the ways that it is destructive.

It is stupid coalition politics. Hochul has alienated her allies, including environmental groups, state budget hawks, and transit advocates. Bill McKibben, the longtime New Yorker writer who has become one of the country’s most famous climate activists, called Hochul’s decision “one of the most aggressive anti-environmental actions ever undertaken by a Democratic governor.”

In exchange, Hochul has delighted her Republican adversaries, who can praise her wise decision-making in the weeks to come — and therefore brandish their own bipartisan bonafides — but continue to campaign against congestion pricing through November. Congestion pricing is unpopular now, but in her fecklessness, Hochul has guaranteed that it will be a live issue in November.

It is nonsense budget politics. Hochul says that she has delayed congestion pricing because she is worried about the city’s recovery from the pandemic, but regardless of her reasons, she has now left a $1 billion hole in the transit authority’s budget. The New York Times reports that she wants to fill that hole by raising taxes on the state’s businesses.

But that means that she has taken a tax formerly charged to some New York residents and businesses — but which would also fall on New Jersey and Connecticut residents and businesses — and shifted it entirely to in-state entities. She has, in essence, cut taxes on out-of-state residents and raised taxes on New York businesses and consumers.

And instead of taxing the right to use roads in downtown Manhattan, which are a limited public resource, she will instead tax all business activity in the state. What good will that do for New York’s economy?

Those political and financial flaws might be forgiven if her decision was good for the planet. But don’t worry: It’s also bad climate politics.

Cars, SUVs, and trucks belch more climate pollution into the atmosphere than any other single economic activity in the U.S. Nearly 20% of America’s annual carbon pollution comes from individuals and families driving their private vehicles around on roads and highways. This is a far larger share of national pollution than is generated by more famous climate villains, such as air travel.

We have good ways of dealing with all that carbon pollution. In suburbs, small towns, and rural America, the best way to deal with that tailpipe pollution is to gradually transition from gasoline-burning cars to electric vehicles. In some places, the country can also experiment with using experimental, climate-friendly liquid fuels.

But in cities, people have better and cheaper options than getting EVs. We can stop requiring people to drive everywhere and encourage them to walk, bike, and take public transit instead. That will require, at times, treating the use of roads in city centers as the limited public resource that it is — which means charging cars and trucks to enter the most crowded downtown areas of certain cities at certain times of the day.

That’s what congestion pricing is: a way of encouraging cities to grow in pro-climate, pro-environmental ways. Such a policy has already been successfully implemented in London, Singapore, and other congested cities. Even as an urban car owner, I long wanted the city where I lived for a decade — Washington, D.C. — to adopt a similar policy. After all, when Stockholm started its congestion fee, the rate of asthma attacks among its children dropped by half.

So I looked forward to the start of congestion pricing in New York City, America’s biggest, densest, and most transit-friendly city. New York was bushwhacking a trail for everyone else to follow: If congestion policy was a success there, then other American cities could experiment with it in some form.

By pausing that trial before it has even begun, Hochul has essentially frozen our ability to experiment with congestion pricing anywhere else in the country. By shuttering the policy in New York, she has poisoned pro-climate urban politics everywhere. Now people will say: You saw what happened when New York tried to do congestion pricing. Do you really want to try that here?

In the past, when national Democrats have approved new pipelines or oil projects, they have argued that those projects will not affect the country’s carbon pollution because only demand for fossil fuels, and not the supply of them, drives carbon emissions. But what makes congestion pricing so powerful is that demand is precisely what it targets. Congestion pricing makes buses run faster, pays for the subway system, and pushes people and businesses to consider the social cost of their driving before they get in the car.

Congestion pricing, if implemented widely, can actually conserve fossil fuels and cut carbon emissions. Now Hochul has halted its progress everywhere.

She has made, in other words, a local mistake with national and even global consequences. It is such a foolhardy error that it instantly recasts Kathy Hochul’s climate record as governor.

Hochul has previously been seen as a center-left governor playing a difficult but moderate environmental hand. But is that really her record? She has struggled to build wind farms off the coast of New York, even though it is essential to decarbonizing the state’s power grid. She has so far failed to pass the NY HEAT Act, which would help the state transition away from using fossil fuels to heat its buildings. She has even failed to pass little climate measures that would fund the state’s more modest climate goals.

I would compare her to Senator Joe Manchin, the fossil-fuel-friendly West Virginia lawmaker who repeatedly refused to vote for Biden’s climate policy — except at least Manchin put his political reputation on the line when it mattered and ultimately negotiated, and voted for, the Inflation Reduction Act. At least Manchin has many qualities to recommend him: He was canny, risk-taking, proud, and courageous when it counted. Hochul is just a loser.

Robinson Meyer profile image

Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology.

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