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Quick hits.

  1. A Delaware jury found Hunter Biden guilty on three felony counts of lying on a federal firearms application in 2018. (The verdict)
  2. The United Nations Security Council adopted a U.S.-led resolution calling on Hamas to accept a ceasefire and hostage-release plan offered by Israel. (The resolution)
  3. Teamsters President Sean O'Brien has asked to speak at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions this year, as Joe Biden and Donald Trump seek the union's endorsement. (The request)
  4. The Port of Baltimore's main shipping channel fully reopened on Monday after a massive cleanup effort following the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. (The reopening)
  5. Malawi’s Vice President Saulos Chilima and nine others were killed in a plane crash in northern Malawi. (The crash)

Today's topic.

New York’s congestion pricing pause. On Wednesday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) paused a plan to implement a “congestion” toll on motorists entering Manhattan below 60th Street. The toll, scheduled to go into effect on June 30, was intended to relieve gridlock, improve air quality, and provide roughly $1 billion a year to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to modernize the city’s century-old transit infrastructure. 

The pricing plan would have charged different rates for different vehicles, including a $15 charge for passenger vehicles entering the city. Some exemptions or credits would have been included for low-income drivers who live in the congestion zone or who had paid tolls to enter the city through the Lincoln or Holland tunnels. Prices would have also varied based on the time of day, peaking at rush hour. Other major cities around the world — including Stockholm, London, and Singapore — have established congestion pricing programs, but New York’s plan would have been the first of its kind in the U.S.

The pause does not require legislative sign-off (Hochul only needs approval from the MTA’s 23-member board, which she controls), but the state Senate and Assembly must approve legislation to make up for the revenue loss to the MTA. The governor’s office suggested that Hochul could temporarily tap the state’s reserves to cover the funds and is exploring increasing taxes on New York City businesses as a long-term solution.

Back up: Congestion pricing in New York was first conceived in 1952 but has remained mired in debate and competing proposals for decades. In 2019, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and the state legislature reached a deal to enact congestion pricing in Manhattan, but the rollout was delayed for years. Just weeks ago, Hochul reaffirmed her support for the plan, calling it critical to “making cities more livable.” In anticipation of the plan going into effect, the MTA installed cameras, sensors and license plate readers and signed a $500 million contract with a private vendor to operate the tolling infrastructure. 

Hochul said concerns over inflation and New York’s post-Covid economy led to the last-minute change of plans. 

“Let’s be real: a $15 charge may not mean a lot to someone who has the means, but it can break the budget of a working- or middle-class household,” she said in a video announcing the decision. “I cannot add another burden to working middle-class New Yorkers or create another obstacle to our continued economic recovery” from the Covid pandemic.

The plan has long been derided by Republicans, including former President Trump, but has also attracted the ire of Democrats. Before the pause was announced, Politico reported that House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) raised concerns with Hochul about the plan’s political blowback to Democrats in vulnerable House districts in an effort to delay its implementation. Recent polling also found congestion pricing is broadly unpopular with New Yorkers living both inside and just outside the city.

Proponents of congestion pricing expressed shock at Hochul’s decision, calling it a betrayal after decades of work to implement the plan. “We’ve been blindsided,” said Kate Slevin, executive vice president of the Regional Plan Association, an urban planning nonprofit in New York. “It’s a betrayal of millions of transit riders and the future of New York’s climate and economy.”

The plan also faced numerous legal challenges, including a lawsuit brought by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D), who alleged the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration did not conduct a proper environmental review of the plan. These cases, however, did not appear to impact Hochul’s decision to order the pause.

Congestion pricing would have provided the largest source of funding for the MTA’s $51.5 billion capital program; the agency planned to borrow against the $1 billion of expected congestion pricing revenue to sell $15 billion of debt to pay for service improvements. Now, critical upgrades and repairs to transit lines will take priority over planned initiatives for electric buses, accessible stations, and new track signals.

Today, we’ll look at reactions to Hochul’s decision from the right and left. Then, my take.

What the right is saying.

  • The right welcomes the decision but says Hochul needs to completely scrap the idea.
  • Some suggest the saga reflects poorly on Hochul regardless of the outcome.
  • Others note the about-face will still cost the city millions, but with nothing to show for it.

The New York Post editorial board offered “kudos for Hochul’s congestion toll U-turn — now make sure it’s dead for good.”

“Bravo, gov, for recognizing that New Yorkers can’t afford to be squeezed in yet another way by the state. Although Hochul did support congestion pricing, it wasn’t her brainchild (thank ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo for that), so she could be forgiven for a tactical and graceful retreat — if it sticks,” the board wrote. “The delay was the obvious choice politically in an election year: A whopping 63% of New Yorkers are against it, and the plan faced opposition from everyone from the teachers union to members of Hochul’s own party. Yet she’s treating it only as bad timing: Times are hard and the city is still bouncing back from the COVID shutdowns — but signaling that the tolls could return under the right circumstances.”

“The fees would slam all New Yorkers, not just drivers, slowing tourism and slamming businesses. That’s all still going to be true even if the city’s economic outlook improves,” the board added. “Address the MTA’s funding woes without pilfering the pockets of hardworking New Yorkers; the gov should insist the MTA get its financial house in order and that local district attorneys crack down on the farebeaters who are costing the system millions per year. The gov deserves big props for listening to her constituents (and reading The Post). Now, send congestion pricing to the ‘bad ideas’ graveyard once and for all.”

In City Journal, John Ketcham argued Hochul’s “last-minute pause on congestion pricing demonstrates chaotic leadership.”

“Setting aside the merits of congestion pricing, which have been debated for decades, Hochul’s abrupt cancellation of a progressive-favored policy has led some on her left to question her leadership. The governor’s clumsy handling is yet another example of the political ineptitude that has marked her tenure,” Ketcham said. “Hochul stressed that the resulting revenues would be used to improve the MTA’s aging infrastructure… But tying the plan to the MTA’s funding enabled opponents to characterize it as a cash grab for the dismally inefficient authority, not a genuine attempt to boost Manhattanites’ quality of life by reducing vehicular congestion.”

“Staring down the barrel of a repeat electoral embarrassment that could potentially spill over into New Jersey and Connecticut districts, the governor decided that backlash from congestion-pricing advocates would amount to less of a political hit in November than motivating suburban auto commuters, public employees, Republicans, and other opponents to come out to the polls,” Ketcham wrote. “Unlike her predecessor in the governor’s office, Hochul lacks the political capital and will to see her priorities through. In the remote chance that she eventually un-pauses congestion pricing, she will look yet more indecisive.”

In The Washington Examiner, Carter Schroppe criticized “Hochul’s weak congestion pricing backtrack.”

“Given the large number of people and organizations present on either side of the matter, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, climate activists, unions, politicians, and citizens, it’s fair to say Hochul was in a tough spot,” Schroppe said. “But to backtrack at the eleventh hour like this, with the MTA having already purchased $500 million of equipment for tolling, is clearly representative of her ineffectual governance. If there was ever a possibility that the plan had problems or would need to be disposed of, why spend the money and drag New Yorkers through this controversy in the first place? The sunk costs here are immense.”

“The reversal comes as positive news to many and is indeed the correct choice, but the evident mishandling of the situation proves Hochul isn’t fit for office,” Schroppe wrote. “Inherent to Hochul’s indecision is the disconnect she has with her constituents. A Siena College survey from April found that 64% of people living in New York opposed the plan… To charge someone for the grand crime of driving into certain neighborhoods is to impose on their liberty.”

What the left is saying.

  • The left is critical of Hochul’s decision, arguing it sends a troubling signal to other U.S. cities.
  • Some frame the decision as an own-goal in pursuit of fleeting political gain.
  • Others say the episode highlights Democratic leaders’ struggle to govern effectively.

In The New York Times, Tom Wright and Kate Slevin wrote “Kathy Hochul just upended a lot more than congestion pricing.”

“Hochul’s action raises questions about whether congestion pricing, which was set to begin at the end of the month, will ever happen. It will mean continued congestion on some of the world’s most traffic-stymied streets and no relief from the air pollution from auto and truck exhaust,” Wright and Slevin said. “The idea had essentially universal support from environmentalists, transit advocates, economists and policy experts. The fee was expected to reduce traffic in the city’s core by as many as 120,000 vehicles a day, significantly improve traffic congestion and reduce the exhaust that is fouling Manhattan’s air.”

“Hochul has said she wants to postpone the program — for how long she hasn’t said — because of the lingering economic impacts of the pandemic. But investing in transit and ending seemingly endless traffic headaches is exactly what our region needs to continue to recover. New York has been leading the way on congestion pricing in the United States, and this sends the wrong message to other cities trying to untangle their traffic and mass transit problems.”

In Curbed, Justin Davidson said “Hochul blew it.”

“New York City should lead the world in urban transformation, as it did when it created a central water-supply system in the 1840s, mapped out an expanding grid of streets, built the subways, fast-tracked the technology of high-rise construction, developed a legal framework to control it, and enshrined historic preservation in law,” Davidson wrote. “Congestion pricing should have marked one of those moments when the city acted wisely to shape its own looming future — to start finally liberating itself from a century of obeisance to the internal combustion engine. Instead, it’s given craven politicians one more irresistible chance to blow it.

“Like many imperfect but necessary innovations, congestion pricing doesn’t poll well. But it’s a crucial tool that ultimately benefits everyone by making city streets more navigable and safer, while also making it easier both for those who do drive and the non-driving masses to get around,” Davidson wrote. “If all that effort and calibration turns out to have been wasted — if Hochul’s capricious delay devolves into permanent collapse — then why would anyone bother waging such a protracted battle again?”

In Slow Boring, Matthew Yglesias explored “the larger crisis of Deep Blue governance” underneath Hochul’s decision.

“I’m both very frustrated with Kathy Hochul’s efforts to kill New York City congestion pricing at the last minute and also sort of weirdly sympathetic to her. At some level, she’s just trying to help House Democrats win races on Long Island, a worthy and important goal. The congestion pricing plan is unpopular there, and she is prioritizing policy moderation and winning over idealistic pursuit of a niche interest group goal,” Yglesias said. “But, as someone who really likes congestion pricing, I’m annoyed that transportation reformers’ ox is the one getting gored here.”

“Congestion pricing was always a political risk. We know from London, Stockholm, and Oslo that voters resist the idea of paying for something that they’re accustomed to getting for free. But we also know from those cities that once congestion pricing is in place, it’s proved reasonably popular and politically durable,” Yglesias wrote. “Now, New York is not addressing its major housing problems or transportation problems, and it’s had to U-turn on criminal justice reform thanks to a state leadership that can’t set priorities or get things done.”

My take.

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  • Gov. Hochul had good reason to advance a solution to the city’s congestion that would largely not have affected the working poor.
  • There were obvious risks to this plan, but it felt way too late to pull the plug.
  • Ultimately, I wish she would have just followed through and we could have seen how this plan would have worked.

Whenever we go through a stretch of news dominated by court trials, wars and scandal, I always feel relieved to just have a good old-fashioned policy debate. 

First and foremost, my baseline position here is that Gov. Hochul should have seen this experiment through — even if just for a much more limited time or at a cheaper price point. 

I say that just to offer an alternative solution to Hochul’s political problem, before passing any judgment on the efficacy of the policy. Even the people arguing that congestion pricing was going to be a net-negative public policy have not argued that it was going to be so bad or so dangerous that we absolutely could not let it go through under any circumstances. Given the relative political risk and the sunk financial cost, and irrespective of whether it was going to work exactly as planned or not, I think Hochul was past the “point of no return” when she decided to pull the plug on this idea. Now, New York is unprepared to navigate the MTA’s budget shortfall and has wasted an unbelievable amount of time, money, and political capital getting a potential solution this far just to have the rug pulled out from under it at the 11th hour.

That being said, the debate about the policy is robust and interesting. To me, the most compelling points against the policy are the following:

  • A healthy majority of New York City residents (64%, according to Siena College, and 72% of New Yorkers from the suburbs) oppose the idea.
  • Living in New York is already unbelievably expensive, and congestion pricing would just make it even harder for any commuters who rely on cars.
  • The $1 billion this could generate annually would go directly to the MTA, which already has a $7.8 billion payroll and seems to be bloated and dysfunctional.
  • In a similar vein, while the MTA has released some details on what it would do with the money, I’d certainly appreciate more. What would they prioritize and how would the upfront cost benefit the city in the long-term? Can the MTA spend the money efficiently given labor and construction costs in New York right now? Can it get to a point where this money is used so effectively we can put current funding sources to other things? These answers aren't totally clear.
  • The New York teacher's union, New York Republicans, the NAACP, voters from Long Island and New Jersey, and major trucking companies all came together to fight this plan — an illustration of the broad and diverse swathe of people who opposed it.

On the other side, I think the most compelling arguments for congestion pricing are the following:

  • Similar plans were unpopular in other major cities until they went into action and voters saw their effectiveness.
  • While everyday New Yorkers might be resistant to the idea, just as they would be of any toll, transit experts, economists, policy experts, and environmentalists overwhelmingly support it.
  • Virtually no poor New Yorkers are driving in the city, and the tax would mostly affect well-off “outer-borough” New Yorkers and major companies. As the Community Service Society put it: “Our analysis found that just four percent of the city’s outer-borough working residents commute to jobs in Manhattan by vehicle and could be subject to a congestion fee. This compares with 56 percent of outer-borough residents who use mass transit to commute to work in Manhattan, the other boroughs or outside the city.”
  • Not doing anything has its own economic cost; horrible traffic actually hurts economic output, and air pollution has very real health costs. Broken and dysfunctional subway and bus systems also hurt the local economy.
  • Implementing a bold plan would have appealed to New York pride. As Justin Davidson said, this city should lead the world in urban transformation and experimental ideas like this.

Oddly enough, I think that last argument is the one that sticks with me the most. Jody Avirgan — a New York City journalist, podcaster, and my longtime friend — put it like this: "The political caving is not surprising, but more than anything this feels like part of a real 'we can't try big things in this country anymore' story, which is kinda the story of my lifetime."

I’m not 100% sure this was good public policy; I just think that it could have been, and I would have been curious to at least see how it played out. 

Maybe over the long term, the city would have adjusted and perfected the policy. For instance, the working poor could have applied to have their license plates exempted from the toll (rather than just have some discounts applied, as the plan currently calls for). Maybe tourists get one free pass a year, or the city can let trucks serving certain industries in at a discounted rate. Perhaps the congestion zone of lower Manhattan could be expanded or contracted, or pricing plans could come with specific requirements from the MTA to trim its cost and better protect against fare beaters. I'm not sure exactly how this process of calibration would come about, mostly because we never got a chance to see the policy actually go into effect.

To me, that unknown is my greatest disappointment. Congestion pricing could have been a broadly unpopular, $1 billion revenue driver that became more popular, normal, and welcome over time. We could have gotten to a place where the policy did minimum harm and maximum good, and the people paying the majority of the fare were the abundance of wealthy New Yorkers and successful corporations who just genuinely didn't care all that much about an extra $15. Or, conversely, it could have flopped — and we would have learned a good lesson and at least been able to say we tried something innovative and daring and big.

But instead, there was no attempt and no courage — just a lot of wasted time and resources, and now a lot of useless cameras and idle toll-collection equipment all over midtown Manhattan.

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Under the radar.

Gun suicides have consistently outpaced gun homicides in the U.S. for every year over the past 25 years, new CDC figures show. The U.S. saw a record 27,000 gun suicides in 2022, compared to 19,700 gun homicides. While suicidal impulses are often brief, widely accessible guns can make them easier to act on and harder to survive, which is why gun suicides account for more than half of all suicides in the U.S. Axios has the story.

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  • 1975. The year Singapore implemented the world’s first urban congestion-pricing program.
  • 5 million. The approximate number of daily riders on New York City’s subway and bus systems in 2023.
  • -17%. The expected reduction in vehicles entering Manhattan’s central business district as a result of New York’s congestion pricing plan (equivalent to 153,000 vehicles), according to the MTA review board.
  • $35. The amount that large trucks would be charged to enter midtown Manhattan under the plan.
  • $2.50. The amount Uber, Lyft, and other ride shares would be charged to enter midtown Manhattan under the plan.
  • 64%. The percentage of registered voters in New York City who said they opposed the congestion pricing plan in an April 2024 Siena College poll.
  • 72%. The percentage of registered voters in New York City suburbs who said they opposed the plan.
  • 14%. The percentage of New York voters who said they would travel to Manhattan less often if the congestion pricing plan were implemented.
  • 40-49%. Gov. Kathy Hochul’s favorable-unfavorable rating in April 2024, her lowest ever.

The extras.

Have a nice day.

Mesh fishing nets are a popular tool for deep-sea fishers; but they are nearly invisible in the water, meaning that other animals often get caught and become unwanted bycatch. An estimated 300,000 small whales, dolphins, and porpoises die each year from getting entangled in fishing nets, according to the World Wildlife Fund. But this problem has sparked a few creative solutions: To solve this problem, a group of German marine biologists have threaded fishing nets with tiny acrylic glass beads that make a noise to alert animals of their presence. Meanwhile, researchers in Baja California in Mexico found a 63 percent bycatch reduction using nets illuminated by green lights. Nice News has the story.

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