Five months ago, the MTA was waiting on approval from the federal government so it could move forward with a congestion pricing plan passed a year before that would raise $15 billion to strengthen and modernize the nation’s largest transit system. Since then, the pandemic has destroyed the economy and decimated the MTA’s budget, and the federal government has still not budged on congestion pricing.

On Monday, the MTA’s head of capital construction, Janno Lieber, stated that the implementation of congestion pricing plan would be delayed at least a year from its projected start date—early 2021 to early 2022, because of federal inaction. “It is so frustrating,” he said.

At issue: The federal government has still not told the MTA whether the project needs a shorter Environmental Assessment Statement or a much larger, more time-consuming Environmental Impact Statement that requires extensive public outreach and planning.

“We have not received an answer to this critical question. Since April of last year, we have met with the federal government more than a dozen times to discuss the Central Business District Tolling Program. They have had all the information they requested since this past January,” said MTA spokesperson Kenneth Lovett. “It's now July and we still have not heard back from the feds on whether we need an EAS or EIS to proceed. We continue to move forward internally with all we can do, including preliminary design work, to be ready once the federal government makes a decision.”

The state, which passed congestion pricing as part of its 2019 budget, needs approval from the Federal Highway Administration because tolls are being imposed on roads funded with federal dollars, and will go towards funding mass transit, not more roads. The state can't even hash out the details of how much tolls will be, because the law that enacted congestion pricing puts that task to a Traffic Mobility Review Board appointed by the MTA, which Lovett says cannot exist until the federal government gives its blessing on the project.

“New York should be the shining example of here's the way you do it,” said Lisa Daglian, the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA and the former head of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council. “What you have now is a shining example of how not to do it.”

Danny Pearlstein, the policy and communications director for the Riders Alliance, said his sense was that the project is at an “impasse.”

“Rather than assign the MTA to go out and do a study, the federal government is hemming and hawing and not moving forward,” Pearlstein said.

Daglian added, "Holding up the process, when one of the primary benefits of congestion pricing is environmental...is so counterintuitive."

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Federal Highway Administration told Gothamist, "New York State’s congestion pricing proposal is still under review by the Federal Highway Administration. Given that this project would set precedent as the first 'cordon' congestion pricing toll zone in the United States, it requires thorough consideration and review."

Also on Tuesday, the MTA’s leadership joined a press conference with transit systems across the country in pleading for relief from the federal government to plug pandemic-sized holes in their budgets.

The MTA alone is asking for $10.9 billion—$3.9 billion to limp through 2020 and another $6.1 billion to survive in 2021.

New York City is currently in Phase 2 of its reopening, but transit ridership is still anemic compared to pre-pandemic levels. This past Monday, subway and bus ridership was down 78 percent and 47 percent compared to the same time last year.

Rachael Fauss, who studies the MTA for the good government group Reinvent Albany, said that the MTA needs both federal funding and congestion pricing approval to maintain service and good repair at levels that will be acceptable to a public wary of taking mass transit during a pandemic.

“Absent federal funding, their options are all really last resort,” Fauss said, pointing to fare hikes and using capital money to keep trains running. “The dual problem of fare increases, service cuts, and layer on top of that no capital improvements, and you’ve got a downward spiral that is the exact opposite of what New York City needs to recover right now.”

Republicans in the U.S. Senate have opposed a bill that would give the MTA the relief it needs, but Fauss said this was short-sighted, because MTA spending has a nationwide impact.

“Hundreds of millions of MTA dollars have been spent in red states and blue states,” Fauss said. “A third of their spending goes out of state. That’s bigger than many state budgets.”

While the federal government dithers on approving congestion pricing, more private vehicles are clogging city streets. Traffic engineer Sam Schwartz has predicted “by Labor Day it will be Christmas season level traffic every day.”

At a press conference on Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked what he was doing to ease congestion without a congestion pricing scheme. The mayor said that while he was looking at HOV-restrictions and other “different alternatives,” he was “impressed” that so many people were using mass transit.

“I do not necessarily see people choosing cars in much greater numbers over mass transit, but...we better be ready for every eventuality,” de Blasio said.

Pearlstein said that “unquestionably” the mayor could and should be doing more.

“Part of the mayor’s job, more broadly, is to operate streets that are more equitable and efficient,” he said, singling out the acceleration of more dedicated bus lanes and busways as one measure that could be taken immediately. While the mayor recently pledged 20 miles of new dedicated bus lanes, that figure is 20 miles short of the city council's request.

“Absolutely do everything possible to ease the commute of long-suffering bus riders,” Pearlstein said.

“We’re eating in the streets, we might be learning in the streets. Our streets are seen as ever more precious. Giving them over to private cares is less efficient and less equitable than ever.”