MTA failed to meet with environmental leaders critical to congestion pricing – but federal authorities blame MTA for it – Streetsblog New York City

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Walk slowly this way?

Environmental justice advocates haven’t heard from the MTA about congestion pricing, though the road toll authority’s deferred EA must include an environmental justice angle – and the government federal government awaits action.

“I can tell you that I certainly haven’t been contacted,” New York City Alliance for Environmental Justice executive director Eddie Bautista said. “It’s hard for me to imagine that if the MTA wanted to contact environmental justice groups, and there was a group called the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, well, it’s kinda hard for us. to lack. “

As necessary in any environmental assessment, the MTA is required to consider the impact of the project not only on traffic or pollution, but also its impact on environmental justice. The MTA says it has not started contacting environmental groups due to the federal government’s request for “enhanced coordination and public participation.”

The feds deny this. And the lawyers are just flabbergasted.

“What advice are they looking for; what magical consultation process will the federal DOT be proposing? “Said Bautista. “They will tell you to contact the stakeholders, it’s not rocket science.

“Improve it, pick up the phone. Hit ‘send’ on the email, ”he added.

Tri-State Transportation Committee executive director Renae Reynolds, who has worked on environmental justice issues for years, was suspicious of the MTA, suggesting the agency had been involved in this kind of rodeo before.

“This isn’t the first time the MTA has done an EA, so they should know how the process works,” Reynolds told Streetsblog. “If there is a question of changing the language, then they should develop the channels with US DOT or the Federal Highway Administration to get a quick response on these things. It’s not something the MTA should need to be hand-held on.

Oh, but holding hands is exactly what the MTA claims to expect. Officially, the MTA has said that the FHWA has requested some sort of improved process, which makes it more difficult for the MTA to obtain federal approval for every step of its creation mandated from EA for congestion pricing. . Even now – more than four months since the U.S. DOT gave the MTA approval to conduct its scaled-down EA – the agency says it is still waiting to find out whether its environmental justice awareness plan is up to date. height.

“The federal government needs to approve our environmental justice plan, which has not yet happened,” said Ken Lovett, senior advisor to interim president and MTA CEO Janno Lieber. “We expect this to happen soon and awareness will begin. “

But the federal government says it’s up to the MTA to drive to the hoop.

“Local actors must submit a timeline on the [environmental] process to the FHWA so that the FHWA can approve, so the ball is in their court, ”said a federal source familiar with the matter. “That is to say not be slowed down on the FHWA side.

And an FHWA spokesperson added, “The NY Division of the FHWA has made themselves fully available for [the MTA] and has been actively engaged.

The state legislature and Governor Cuomo approved congestion pricing in 2019, but the traffic toll has been stuck in some sort of hell since that triumph, as federal approval is needed to allow the State tolls on roads that were built with federal money. For nearly two years, the Trump administration said it was investigating whether the MTA would need to do a more complicated and lengthy EA or environmental impact statement, but that red signal turned green soon after. that Joe Biden succeeded Trump.

The MTA had previously suggested that it could complete the assessment in a matter of months, which environmental law experts said was an ambitious but achievable timeline. The agency has at least had preliminary talks with the state of Connecticut, but has not spoken with the New Jersey government, which is more resistant to congestion pricing. At the MTA board meeting last month, MTA CEO and Chairman Pat Foye said that the MTA was still waiting for the federal government to approve its awareness plan for the two states.

Other evidence that the MTA and Governor Cuomo are blocking on congestion pricing abounds:

The MTA failed to convene the Traffic Mobility Review Board, a six-person panel that is supposed to recommend the pricing of congestion tolls and any potential exemptions or credit given to drivers. Mayor de Blasio appointed his only panel member, Finance Commissioner Sherif Soliman, to the TMRB in June, but the MTA board did not appoint the other five panel members.

Throughout the Trump era, Cuomo suggested that the president was holding congestion pricing hostage as an act of political revenge, but the beleaguered governor still appears to be relying on that excuse long after Trump was exiled to Mar-a-Lago.

“With congestion pricing, the state has adopted it, the MTA can adopt it. … The federal government need only approve it. It doesn’t cost them a dime, they just have to approve it. Approve it now, ”Cuomo said in late July at an Association for a Better New York breakfast.

Aside from Cuomo’s comments, there is little evidence of urgency from the state, which at one point claimed it could complete an EA in just a matter of months if only President Trump s ‘was getting out of the way. But the governor also kept congestion pricing at bay. For example, he admitted that he did not raise the issue with then President Trump in a meeting in May 2020 and did not raise it with then President-elect Biden in November. 2020; and MTA’s handpicked CFO Bob Foran recently told the agency’s board that there was no problem if congestion pricing was delayed because the MTA does not yet need the $ 15 billion in bonds that the tolls will generate (which must have come as a shock to agency officials who have long supported congestion pricing as a pillar of maintaining regional service. metro and rail).

In fact, the delays will cost New Yorkers money and lives, as Streetsblog reported. As a result, the mayor of Blasio and his likely successor Eric Adams intensified criticism of Governor Cuomo for stalling.

Lovett said the MTA is “moving quickly” to get crucial awareness to environmental justice groups because “52% of the project’s nearly 30-county study area is a minority and 13% have household incomes below the cut-off. of poverty.

And that is exactly why advocates seek to act.

“With each passing day the traffic jams are getting worse, our air is more and more polluted and the MTA is leaving more and more resources on the table that are needed to modernize and expand the metro system,” said Kevin Garcia , NYC-EJA transportation planner. “And all of this is taking place while we are still in a pandemic that continues to disproportionately impact BIPOC communities and people with pre-existing community conditions. It is therefore imperative that the environmental assessment be completed with the contribution of JE communities and organizations.

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