When Gov. Kathy Hochul backed away Wednesday from the vehicle-tolling plan that was supposed to bankroll billions of dollars in critical transit system upkeep and expansion, the MTA was left facing a $15 billion hole in its capital program — and no clear answers on how to fill it.

Hochul’s hasty retreat from congestion pricing, after years of planning and hundreds of millions of dollars in MTA spending, has thrown the future of those long-promised improvements into question as angry agency board members, staffers and advocates wonder what’s next.

“There is no Plan B,” said Midori Valdivia, an MTA board member who formerly served as chief of staff to a past agency chairman.

While Hochul said that she will work with federal and city governments to find ways to make up for the billions the MTA had expected to generate from tolling drivers into Manhattan’s south-of-60th-Street congestion zone, her press office offered no insights a day later.

Kathy Wylde, head of the influential business group Partnership for New York City, told THE CITY Thursday that Hochul had confirmed to her in a text message that the pause on congestion pricing is temporary.

But the governor also faces the possibility of a revolt from MTA board members, several of whom have come out against her about-face.

“With congestion pricing, we had a potent remedy for what has been a persistent inequity at the heart of New York’s previous failures to invest in the MTA network,” board member David Jones, president and chief executive of the Community Service Society, said in a statement.

There are also questions about whether Hochul even has the power she thinks she has.

“She can't do this unilaterally,” said Rachael Fauss, senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany, a capital watchdog group. “She needs the legislature to agree and she needs the MTA board to agree and these are big asks.

“Will she have any political capital left to fund the next capital plan?”

At the Brooklyn Army Terminal, Gov. Kathy Hochul announces her plan to convert existing freight lines into an Interborough Express, Jan. 20. 2022. Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Derailed Plans

For a transit system still climbing out of a pandemic that sunk ridership and revenues, Hochul’s decision to indefinitely delay the Central Business District Tolling Plan, as congestion pricing is officially known, carries enormous implications for the current five-year capital plan and the next one — which the MTA board must approve by October.

“It leaves us in a position of, ‘Ok, we thought we had figured it out but now we’re back to square one,’” said Eric Goldwyn, an assistant professor and member of the Transit Costs Project at the NYU Marron Institute’s transportation and land-use program.

The city’s Independent Budget Office also warned in a new report Thursday that the delay comes with a heavy cost, while citing how congestion pricing has been successfully implemented in London, Singapore, Milan and Stockholm.

“To delay this program now halts decades of policy and implementation work representing unquantifiable amounts of time, money and other resources,” the IBO report said.

The pause comes on top of the MTA already having halted the awarding of contracts on most capital construction projects as a result of the numerous lawsuits filed over congestion pricing.

Transit officials said those projects — for signal upgrades on multiple subway lines, the purchase of zero-emissions buses, new train cars and essential maintenance work — are directly tied to the $15 billion that the MTA expected to pull in from congestion pricing.

“We’re now at the stage where that money is being delayed by this litigation and there is important work that we’re not able to get started,” Jamie Torres-Springer, president of MTA Construction and Development, told THE CITY in February. “Improving the system, expanding the system, Second Avenue Subway to East Harlem, making the system more accessible — we can’t get that done because we’re awaiting the results of this litigation.”

The current five-year capital program of more than $50 billion is the most ambitious in MTA history. It has, to date, helped fund signal upgrades on multiple subway lines, the installation of subway elevators in a system that remains largely inaccessible to people with disabilities and the purchase of new buses and subway cars.

The MTA released renderings of the Second Avenue Subway extension to 125th Street.
The MTA released renderings of the Second Avenue Subway extension to 125th Street. Credit: Rendering via MTA

The capital plan has also inched forward the process of eventually expanding Second Avenue’s Q line north of 96th Street with the awarding in January of the first contract on the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway, a $182 million deal to relocate underground utilities prior to the start of construction on a new 106th Street stop.

But transit observers said the MTA’s glossy expansion projects — including further work on the Q and the construction of an Interborough Express light rail line linking Brooklyn and Queens — are likely to be sidelined without congestion pricing money.

“With scarce dollars, being enamored of shiny new toys, even when they’re helpful, is all the more risky,” Andrew Rein, president of the watchdog Citizens Budget Commission, told THE CITY. “Those particular types of projects siphon off money from what is essential investment in making sure the system is in the shape it needs to be.”

Among the key planned investments is the MTA’s focus on expanding transit accessibility for people with disabilities, following a 2022 settlement of class-action lawsuits that requires 95% of all subway and Staten Island Railway stations be equipped with elevators or ramps by 2055.

“Governor Hochul proudly claimed credit for the settlement,” a group comprised of five disability-rights groups said in a statement Thursday. “We need those elevators and other essential transit projects to move forward so that disabled New Yorkers can take full advantage of our city’s vital transit system.”