This Is No Way to Run a City (or a Country)

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column about the need for a liberalism that builds, and why it requires Democrats to confront their own role — Republican obstruction notwithstanding — in making government action difficult. This week, I want to offer a case study.

In 2019, the New York Legislature, with the support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, approved a traffic congestion pricing plan for New York City. The plan was simple enough: Starting in 2021, it would cost money to drive into the busier areas of Manhattan. The revenue would be used to improve public transit across the region.

But some of the roads in New York City were built with federal money, and federal law says that a state can’t just put a toll on roads built with federal funds. So New York needed cooperation from Washington. The Trump administration dragged its feet — it didn’t like Cuomo, or de Blasio, or mass transit, or congestion pricing — but the Biden administration proved an eager partner.

And for good reason: It’s hard to think of a liberal goal congestion pricing doesn’t serve: The people who drive into Manhattan are richer, relatively speaking, so it’s a progressive tax; the people who take mass transit are poorer, so it funds public infrastructure for those who need it most; cars belch out more pollution per passenger than trains and buses, so it’s good for both the environment and public health. One study found that Stockholm’s congestion pricing plan cut ambient air pollution by 5 to 15 percent and sharply reduced severe asthma attacks in children.

But New Yorkers are still waiting. Congestion pricing isn’t technically complicated. It doesn’t require major new infrastructure. It’s largely a question of hanging sensors on poles. But I’m told that the likely launch date for New York’s congestion pricing program — which, again, passed in 2019 — is now sometime in 2024.

“We’ve been in negotiations with the federal government that has a say on the next step,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said during Tuesday night’s Democratic primary debate. “And they have now put some other — let’s call them hurdles — in the way that we have to overcome. So this is not going to happen over the next year under any circumstances.”

So here’s the question: Why has this taken so long?

In 2021, the Biden administration struck a deal with New York. Rather than a full environmental impact statement — which now takes federal agencies, on average, 4.5 years to complete — New York could conduct an “environmental assessment,” which is a bit more forgiving. Still, the process called for 16 months of public meetings and traffic analyses. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority submitted a draft review in February. The Federal Highway Administration replied with more than 400 technical questions and comments.

These questions and comments range from technical issues of traffic management to worries over distributional impact. New York has been asked to better estimate the number of low-income drivers who commute into the financial district by car, or the number of nonwhite cabdrivers who might be displaced by the policy. Rerunning the models can take days each time, simply because of the computer power needed. (And it’s worth noting: New York is a rich, big city with a lot of resources. These processes are much harder on smaller jurisdictions with little in-house expertise.)

I’ve heard a few arguments for the role the federal government is playing here. One is that it fears that anything less than a bulletproof environmental assessment will leave New York open to an endless series of lawsuits. San Francisco stands as a warning: In 2005, the city adopted a plan to add dedicated lanes and parking for bikes. The city was sued under the California Environmental Quality Act, leading to an injunction, a 1,353-page environmental impact report (this, again, for bicycle infrastructure) and about four years of delay. Showing you considered the consequences of this-or-that facet of the policy helps you win those cases.

I don’t dispute these fears. But they’re an indictment of laws that make projects so easy to block, not a defense of the process we have. Congestion pricing taxes cars to fund trains. It cuts pollution and frees up roadways. It’s not a hard call, environmentally. Yet everyone involved in the process fears the lawsuits that will be brought under the auspices of legislation like the California law or the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, that was passed to protect the environment.

“We live in this wildly litigious environment,” Janno Lieber, the head of the M.T.A., told me. “At some level — I can’t fix that. I can’t fix that NEPA became a tool for attacking pro-environmental initiatives. I want to get congestion pricing started here in the country’s biggest city, prove it out, and show its environmental worth. And I think that’ll be a stronger argument against environmental lawsuits than the accusation that you missed the five low-income cabdrivers in East New York.”

Another argument is that this will be the first major congestion pricing plan in the United States, and everyone wants to see it go well. I’m sympathetic to this, too. Imagine you’re an experienced traffic engineer at the Federal Highway Administration. You read through New York City’s congestion pricing plan and have some thoughts on how it could be better or how local officials could gather relevant data that they had missed. Of course you’ll let them know. That’s your job. You want this project to succeed.

But this is a place where what’s rational for each individual is irrational for the process. All of this, for now, is just predictions, modeling exercises and speculation. The way to improve congestion pricing is to implement it, gather data and then improve it. Delaying the program delays when officials can begin learning from actual operations.

And there are more direct consequences. Every year the plan is delayed is a year that the M.T.A. doesn’t get the revenue it could otherwise use to improve New York’s groaning buses and subways. Every year without congestion pricing is a year with more cars, more pollution, more asthma attacks. Whose job is it to tally those costs?

“The law as it’s been developed does not recognize or weigh who benefits environmentally across the board — it only identifies who is disadvantaged environmentally,” Lieber said. “It has no mechanism for weighing the positives as part of an environmental review. That’s what is missing — a metric for capturing positive environmental benefits.”

A third argument is that this kind of review may look odd when applied to congestion pricing, but it’s necessary nevertheless, because it often does stop projects that are racist in their design or reckless in their construction. Think of Robert Moses building freeways through poor communities. And that’s true. The question is whether it remains truer than the opposite: That more damage is being done to the environment, or to equity, because construction has become so difficult. The mounting affordability problems in blue cities, and the horror stories I hear from people trying to build climate infrastructure, make me skeptical that the equilibrium we’ve found is the right one.

I think the Department of Transportation, under Secretary Pete Buttigieg, sincerely believes climate change is an existential threat. I think it sincerely believes equity is an overriding concern. I think it sincerely believe mass transit is a public good. I don’t think it sincerely believes that all of those goals, and much more, are imperiled by the inability of Democrats to build infrastructure quickly and experiment with policy freely. Or, if it does believe that, it has not aligned its process with its values. The Federal Highway Administration has made itself into the ombudsman of congestion pricing, not an accelerator of a project that New York’s voters are perfectly equipped to judge. Elections, not technical reviews, are typically the best avenue for accountability.

And I promise you: I have not cherry-picked the most contentious program, or the worst process. Quite the opposite. Congestion pricing is a useful case study precisely because it’s a straightforward policy, with the explicit, even fervent, support of all the major decision makers. It raises revenue, rather than costing money. You don’t need to build new tunnels or dam rivers or run a train track through a city. As far as major climate policy goes, this one is easy. And yet, it’s proved to be so, so hard.

I’ve come to wonder if the recent vogue for simple programs that transfer money — and I’ve argued for these programs, too, and desperately want to see the child tax credit expansion renewed — reflect a quiet lowering of expectations. We’re sure government can send checks. We’re not sure what it can build.

I remember asking people who were helping to draft the bipartisan infrastructure deal what lessons they had learned from the 2009 stimulus. That bill was full of legacy-defining, headline-grabbing investments: high-speed rail, a smart electrical grid, a national system for digital medical records. But the more ambitious projects returned lackluster results. So the 2021 infrastructure bill was oriented toward simpler projects that the drafters were confident could be executed — notably, repairs of existing infrastructure, though not only those.

Build Back Better, to be fair, imagined a much more ambitious set of climate projects. And I want to see those pass. But if they pass, I want to see them built — and built fast. That’s not what the government we have right now is set up to do.

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