MTA chair Janno Lieber sounded exasperated at May’s MTA board meeting when asked if the agency would complete its environmental review for congestion pricing — the plan to charge drivers that enter Manhattan below 60th Street — by June in order to stay on its own schedule.

“No, because we are still struggling with the federal government’s 425 comments,” he said. “In some cases we’re working with the feds to nail down, what exactly do you want us to do?”

Lieber was referring to the hundreds of follow-up questions the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) sent to the MTA in response to its environmental assessment on congestion pricing. The assessment is an early requirement of any large transportation project and outlines the potential impacts on an existing region.

Three years after state lawmakers approved the plan to charge drivers in the city's central business district, the approval process continues to hit roadblocks. The plan was hailed as a way of reducing traffic and car pollution in Manhattan and investing the money collected back into MTA capital improvements.

The FHWA questions will ensure that the environmental assessment is airtight and prevent the project from being stalled even longer, a federal Department of Transportation employee who is familiar with the project told Gothamist. The person asked not to be named because they’re not authorized to speak publicly about this project.

“The problem is, it’s not even clear that these 400 questions will necessarily lead to a better outcome at the back end,” said Tom Wright, president and CEO of the Regional Plan Association, a civic think tank group largely focused on transportation. “And really what we need is a sense of urgency to get this thing in the ground. Every day that we delay this is a missed opportunity for addressing the growing traffic problems. And frankly, we know that the longer this takes to play out, the more chance there is that there would be political changes that would undermine the entire program.”

There are signs that may already be happening.

I’m committed to getting it done. Our environment demands it. This region demands it. And yes, it should’ve happened long ago.

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday

While Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, has been a full-throated supporter of the plan, and maintains a close relationship with Lieber, she made it clear there would be no movement on congestion pricing at the moment.

“This is not going to happen over the next year, now’s not the right time,” Hochul, campaigning to run for a full term in office, said at Tuesday night’s gubernatorial debate.

Indeed, the MTA wasn’t planning to have the program up and running until the end of 2023. But other actions to keep the program on track were expected this year. They’re now on hold again.

One key step was the creation of the Traffic Mobility Review Board, a six-member panel representing the regions served by the MTA. The governor would appoint five members, and the New York City mayor would choose one. This panel would determine the cost of the toll drivers would pay, and designate other exemptions to the congestion charges, beyond those already written into the original legislation.

Speaking at an unrelated event at Penn Station Thursday, Hochul clarified her view that, overall, she still supports the program.

“I’m committed to getting it done. Our environment demands it. This region demands it. And yes, it should’ve happened long ago,” she said.

Lining up to kill the plan

Even if congestion pricing was to move forward, opponents of the program are likely preparing to file or join any lawsuit to the program.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat, has blasted the program and called for an extra toll on New York drivers entering New Jersey if it goes through.

Gov. Phil Murphy backed Gottheimer’s suggestion and said Thursday, “all options are on the table.”

Preliminary discussions suggested drivers who enter Manhattan from the Holland or Lincoln Tunnel might be exempt from the toll, but drivers crossing the George Washington Bridge would have to pay a fee if they drove below 60th Street.

“That’s unacceptable, that’s not going to happen,” Murphy said.

Gottheimer also proposed tax breaks to companies that move to New Jersey so his state’s drivers don’t have to drive into Manhattan.

Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Long Island Republican also running for governor, has vowed to kill congestion pricing if he’s elected.

City Councilmember Joann Ariola, who represents sections of southeast Queens, told Gothamist she’d happily join any lawsuit blocking congestion pricing from going into effect. She said there should be more breaks for New Yorkers now, not more taxes.

“It’s about time that we start to carve out some incentives for people to remain here in New York City, and not flee the way they have been,” she said. “I don’t believe it will work, in fact I believe it will make the city more unmanageable to travel through.”

Leah Shahum knows how opponents of seemingly-green projects can use the environmental review as fodder for lawsuits. She was executive director of the non-profit group the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition when that city tried to double the number of bike lanes in the mid-2000s. After the program’s environmental review was released, the city was sued by two individuals.

“They weren’t arguing that bike lanes had a negative impact on air quality or wildlife or air quality; they were very clear they didn’t want parking removal,” Shahum said.

I don’t believe it will work, in fact I believe it will make the city more unmanageable to travel through.

City Councilmember Joann Ariola

Plaintiffs in that suit argued drivers would spend more time looking for a parking spot if some were removed, which would create more pollution.

“They didn’t want their car trip slowed down by one second,” Shahum said.

The bike lanes were ultimately installed, but it was held up in court for four years.

The MTA and federal officials hope to avoid that fate with a process that follows every rule along the way.

A spokesperson for the FHWA said the federal agency is making staff available to the MTA to ensure “ the necessary traffic, air quality, and other analyses" are carried out thoroughly.

At an unrelated press event Thursday, MTA Chairman Lieber explained that several of the questions were related to the way the MTA does its air quality analysis. Lieber said the agency has to calculate how air quality might be affected in 28 nearby counties, going all the way to Philadelphia. He said changing variables on the modeling can takes five days to be completed.

Other questions relate to how congestion pricing might affect low income people.

“What low income person has the money to pay for parking in Manhattan?” Lieber said.

Next month, the MTA will provide an updated financial plan, factoring the number of riders who have not returned to mass transit, as much as the agency had hoped. And it may address the financial impact of the delays to implementing congestion pricing.

The program is expected to generate $1 billion a year in revenue, which the MTA had planned to use to sell $15 billion worth of bonds. The revenue would have gone toward buying electric buses, installing subway elevators and modernizing the signal system, among other big-ticket projects.

“We have been vocal about the importance of this program, because in addition to reducing traffic and providing significant environmental benefits, congestion pricing is essential for the funding of major capital initiatives like accessible subway stations, the Second Avenue Subway and zero-emission buses,” John J. McCarthy, the MTA's chief of external relations, wrote in a statement.

Without congestion pricing funds it’s unclear whether the MTA will have enough money for all of those projects.

Exploring options

But Nicole Gelinas, a senior research fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank group, questioned their sincerity.

“What happened to Pete Buttigieg wanting to help the climate and also wanting to prove Democrats can build stuff fast?” Gelinas, referring to the U.S. Department of Transportation secretary, wrote to Gothamist. “A bigger point is that with all of this delay, delay, delay, we're losing a good opportunity to experiment.”

Gelinas proposed the FHWA allow the MTA to quickly install infrastructure and begin charging a small $2 fee during the busiest hours while offering discounts to rides on the Metro-North or Long Island Rail Road.

“Why not just start with trucks at a few hours of the day to spread the traffic more evenly throughout the day? We are very stuck on this ‘zero or a $20 fee,’ thing, which bodes poorly for future flexibility,” Gelinas said. “We can allow for the very real concern that we don't want to discourage anyone from coming into Manhattan and still get people accustomed to this idea.”