Governor Cuomo: "Congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come. We've talked about it for years. We've tried to get it done for years and I believe this is the year to actually get it done."
Earlier today, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo was a guest on WNYC with Brian Lehrer to discuss a proposal to transform the MTA and create dedicated and sustained funding streams for the agency. The proposal includes the joint endorsement of congestion pricing and a plan to reorganize the MTA.
A full transcript of the interview is available below:
Brian Lehrer: Brian Lehrer on WNYC and we have some breaking news from Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio and the Governor is joining us right now to talk about it. In fact, I think to break it on this show. So we're going to let him do it. And Governor, welcome back to WNYC.
Governor Cuomo: Good to be back, Brian. "Break it on the show" has a nefarious connotation to it.
Brian Lehrer: Especially when you're really trying to fix it. "It" being the MTA, right?
Governor Cuomo: Exactly right. We're trying to fix a problem. We have enough broken things in this country. We announced—well let me make news on your show. Mayor de Blasio and I issued a joint plan today that will bring management reforms to the MTA and congestion pricing to the MTA as an ongoing funding stream. Congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come, Brian. We've talked about it for years. We've tried to get it done for years and I believe this is the year to actually get it done. And it's not just congestion pricing. It's both ends of the equation. I gave a presentation on the MTA a couple of weeks back and I said it's M and M. Not the candy. It's management and money. You need a better management structure at the MTA. It's a 1960-style holding company with a 1960-sytle mentality. We have to consolidate the functions at the MTA. Bring in a different culture. Make the Board functional and operational so we know that we're getting efficiency from the riders' fare. But then we also need a long-term funding stream that we can rely on. And I believe that's congestion pricing. The alternative to congestion pricing is really a fare increase. And it could be as high as 30 percent. I think that's wrong. I think it's wrong to further burden the riders and congestion pricing, frankly, taxes people who drive in. They're the ones who will pay the tolls. Most of them come from out of state. Only one or two percent come from the outer boroughs. It's a luxury to drive into Manhattan. There's tremendous environmental cost, et cetera, and I believe the tolling on congestion pricing is a better way to fund the system.
Brian Lehrer: So let me read a little bit from the press release, give our listeners some of the details and then ask you to comment on them. It says, "The MTA transformation plan would include a congestion pricing financing model. Electronic tolling devices would be installed on the perimeter of the Central Business District of Manhattan, defined as streets south of 61st Street in Manhattan. The FDR Drive will not be included in the Central Business District." So no toll on the drive. And it says, "The electronic tolling system will account for tolls previously paid by drivers entering Manhattan from designated crossings." Does that mean that whatever tolls there are on some of the bridges or tunnels to Manhattan right now from Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx will go away?
Governor Cuomo: The, what it means is, as you question rightly and first, some of the bridges are tolled, others aren't tolled. Some of the tunnels are tolled. If you come through a tolled bridge or tunnel and then enter the Central Business District, that toll will be adjusted for the fact that you already paid a toll coming into Manhattan. So, that's what that's referring to. Electronic tolling, we just did at the Triborough Bridge, the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, it has worked very well. It's worked both as a tolling mechanism, also as a security mechanism because it checks the license plate, it checks the any outstanding tickets, warrants, et cetera. So, we know the electronic tolling works. It would just be around the Central Business District, which is where the congestion is, and it would account for any toll you paid on your way into the Central Business District.
Brian Lehrer: Got it. Now, part of the news here is that Mayor de Blasio, who has been resistant to congestion pricing, is now on board with this I understand. So, how did you get the Mayor on board?
Governor Cuomo: This is a different plan, I think, than previous congestion pricing plans. The Mayor has a number of issues that he felt strongly about and so did I. This plan addresses them, it doesn't toll bridges, East River Bridges, it focuses on the Central Business District and the cost of the Central Business District. It has variable tolling, so we can encourage people to drive in in non-peak hours. We can encourage deliveries to come in at non-peak hours. And we need to do two things: we need to finance the MTA, but we also need to reduce congestion. It doesn't matter how well the bus is running if the bus is only going four miles an hour because there's so much congestion. And Uber and Lyft and green cars. This has really changed and compounded the congestion problem in the city, Brian.
Brian Lehrer: So how much is the toll going to be? I think you indicated that it's going to be different times of day?
Governor Cuomo: It will be different at different times of day, for different types of vehicles. We will back into the toll once we know what the capital plan is. The basic dichotomy is the fare pays the operating expense, the congestion pricing will pay the capital costs. New cars, construction, etcetera. We don't know yet what the capital plan needs to be. Once we have certainty as to what the capital plan is, then we can actually set the toll to raise that amount of money. So the first step is how much is the capital plan? How much do we need to invest to buy the new cars, do the construction, etcetera? And we also have to install the electronic tolling, so we set December of next year as the deadline, which is an aggressive deadline by the way, to install the electronic tolling, design a capital plan, design a toll system to fit that capital plan.
Brian Lehrer: So the toll for congestion pricing wouldn't take effect until December 2020?
Governor Cuomo: Right. You can't charge a toll physically until you have the electronic tolling system up, and you need the capital plan determined by that time.
Brian Lehrer: How will you convince Long Island, and Queens, and Staten Island representatives, maybe even the other outer boroughs, that, well to vote for this in the legislature? Because you need the legislature's approval, right?
Governor Cuomo: Yes. I think there was a misimpression. I am Queens boy, as you know, from my history, and from my accent. I think there was a misimpression that you had all these people in Nassau, and Westchester, and Queens that were driving in to the city. Maybe that was true at one time, I don't remember it, but it's not true anymore Brian. Because driving into the city, just think how expensive that is. Parking is 40 or 50 dollars, you have to pay a toll in most places, gasoline, it easily costs 50, 60, 70 dollars per day to drive your car in. So who's doing that? And we actually went and we did numbers. People from the Bronx, 1.9 percent, Queens 2 percent, Brooklyn 1 percent. Even Nassau 1.8 percent. Suffolk .8 percent, 25 percent from out of state. That's what's happening. If you're coming in from Connecticut, if you're coming in from New Jersey, then you tend to drive in. Otherwise it's not happening with people from the outer boroughs, it's just too expensive.
Brian Lehrer: So this is a proposal now that we could call a joint proposal by you and Mayor de Blasio but the legislature still has to debate and they may change and it's going to go through the legislative process. Is that an accurate description?
Governor Cuomo: Yes, sir, 100 percent. The legislature has to pass a law doing this, this is a proposal that the Mayor and I agree on, but it has to go to the legislature. I'm sure there will be a lot of debate and discussion as it is the nature of the legislative process.
Brian Lehrer: Does this mean he is withdrawing his alternative proposal for a billionaire's tax to fund the MTA.
Governor Cuomo: Well he's supporting this. You know, life is options, right? The millionaire's tax the Mayor has proposed for many years, it was clear politically, given what's going on what's going on in the state: loss of revenue, will be additional tax penalty under SALT from our good President Trump as an arrow directed at New York. I don't think there's an appetite for the millionaire's tax so the realistic options are twofold: Either congestion pricing or a fare increase. And the fare increase could be as high as 30%. Because we do need to raise money and pay for the repairs that we have let linger for years. Remember the old TV commercial, you're too young, 'you can pay me now, or you can pay me later.' We didn't pay to do the maintenance. We have 40-year-old subway cars. We have 100-year-old electric switches that were doused with salt water during Hurricane Sandy. That's why we're having breakdowns and delays. We have to make the changes. I believe the future economic trajectory of this region depends on the mass transit system. It is going to cost money, and by the way, we proved that it works because we started something called the Subway Action Plan just about one year ago. And the Subway Action Plan said let's take $800 million. Let's really make the repairs we need to make, let's bring in companies in to do the work, let's get it done, let's focus. I personally got very involved in it to push it along and we have seen in one year dramatic, dramatic improvement in the subway system. The MTA put out a report the other day. But you can even talk to riders anecdotally and they'll say the service has gotten better, the cars are looking cleaner, the stations are looking better. They'll be quick to add there is a long way to go. And they'll be right. We know if we invest money smartly with the right management. And the management with the MTA is as big of a problem as the funding. Take it from me, I've worked with themI just went through the L Train Tunnel debacle with them. The management is just as important as the money. And I wouldn't ask people to pay more money if we didn't fix the management. It would be like throwing good money after bad.
Brian Lehrer: So does this mean that there's, I believe there's an MTA board meeting tomorrow at which they would take up the proposed fare increases again, which you had blocked when that meeting was supposed to take place a few weeks ago because you had wanted structural change with the MTA. Does this plan you're announcing with the mayor include structural change at the MTA and will the board now have your blessing to go ahead with that fare increase?
Governor Cuomo: The fare increase that they are doing, the regularly scheduled fare increases, that goes up about 2 percent per year. The state uses a 2 percent increase per year as the benchmark. My point was we have to stop these incremental movements, which don't address the problem. And that's why I said to the MTA, my opinion is just stop until you have a real solution, a comprehensive solution, and we end this political nonsense. Everyone has a different opinion. Let the politics get on the same page. Let's come up with a real plan, structural reform, make a real difference. I believe that government is actually supposed to work, Brian. And I'm tired of all of these half plans. And half solutions. This is a full solution, in my opinion.
Brian Lehrer: You've spoken here recently about how nobody controls the MTA. Some board members are appointed by you, some by - even though it's not a plurality by you, it's not a majority, some by the mayor, some by others. And the press release here says the proposal by the state and city includes the joint endorsement of congestion pricing and a plan to reorganize the MTA. So will that MTA board structure change? Will you or anyone else actually have control of the MTA?
Governor Cuomo: Yes, there will be changes on the board structure. It's not just the board. You just want to count heads. And by the way, I don't know what plurality means when it comes to control of an entity. But it's even more bizarre than just who appoints. People appoint, elected officials, the Mayor, the Governor, etc. and the term appointment would run beyond the elected official's term, so Nassau County Executive appointed a person, we have a new Nassau County Executive. We had the person appointed by the previous County Executive. You then went through four possible vetoes of the Capital Plan. Once the board voted, four totally independent, I could veto, the Mayor could veto, the Speaker, the Assembly could veto, the head of the Senate could veto. You can't run anything like that. So, that's part of the change. Second, you have, when they put it together in the sixties, they basically made it a holding company and you have second corporations: you have the New York City Transit Authority, which is the subway system, then the Long Island Railroad, then Metro North, then the Capital Construction, then the Surface Transportation, all separate. All with their own legal department, their own accounting department. They're like separate fiefdoms. Trying to get them to talk to one another is difficult. That all has to be collapsed. It's one entity. It's one organization.
Brian Lehrer: And that's in this proposal?
Governor Cuomo: Yes, yes sir.
Brian Lehrer: And who has to vote on that? The MTA board itself?
Governor Cuomo: That will be part of the legislation, part of this legislative package.
Brian Lehrer: So, after that, when people want to say Governor Cuomo controls the MTA, will that be an accurate statement?
Governor Cuomo: Depends on what the actual structure turns out to be.
Brian Lehrer: Because you still won't have the majority instead of the plurality of the heads?
Governor Cuomo: That's right.
Brian Lehrer: Why not go all the way and propose that with the city?
Governor Cuomo: That is something we have to talk about, but these reforms would not give me control in terms of a majority. They would allow functionality in you would still have under where we are right now, joint, but not even joint, you'd have the Assembly, Senate, Mayor, Governor, all local, county executives, all with a role in quote unquote "control" but at least you'd have a functional operation.And the actually membership of the board, that we have to talk about with the legislature as we go forward.
Brian Lehrer: Let me ask you about how the tolls with respect to congestion pricing, and listeners if you're just joining us, Governor Cuomo is on with us announcing an agreement between himself and Mayor de Blasio on a congestion pricing plan for driving into the Central Business District of Manhattan. It would be below 61st Street. It would not apply to the FDR Drive, but if you get off the FDR Drive below 61st Street then you're in the Central Business District. The tolls listeners, again to bring you back up to speed, if you're just joining us, the Legislature would have to sign off on all of this, and the tolls wouldn't take effect until December of 2020. How would you enforce them at that time assuming this all goes forward? Will toll evaders be held accountable in the same way as fare evaders are right now? Because you know there's talk recently about a double standard and the penalty that people pay if they evade the fare getting on the subway as compared to drivers who blast through the other electronic tolls that already exist.
Governor Cuomo: The toll system would be akin to the current toll system. So if you violate a toll when you go through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel it will take a picture of your license plate and it will send you a bill in the mail. The same thing would happen here. The fare evaders on the subway system are also addressed in this plan. That is a very serious problem and that has to be addressed. We're moving to a point of absurdity where it's almost a voluntary fare system. If you stand in a subway station and just watch people walking through the emergency exit. What happened there is the Manhattan District Attorney said that he didn't want to prosecute fare evasion as a crime. It was taking too much of his time. I understand his position. But then, once he wasn't enforcing them as a crime, enforcement dropped. And it's costing about $200 million per year and it's getting worse. That has to be stopped and this plan says we need design modifications so it's not so easy to walk through an emergency door. And we need personnel, police officers who issue a penalty. I don't care if it's not a criminal, I understand that point, a criminal summons, but you have to get a summons. You have to have a penalty. Because if you move to a voluntary system, then why would anybody pay a fare.
Brian Lehrer: On the congestion pricing northern border, 61st street, I think the previous plan started more north than that. It was 96th street on the west side, something else on the east side, how'd you come up with 61st street?
Governor Cuomo: By the traffic studies, Brian, 61st street south is where the congestion really gets heavy in the "Central Business District," and that's why 61st street was chose,
Brian Lehrer: Before you go, in our last few minutes before the top of the hour, I want to return to the topic of New York post Amazon deal. Mayor De Blasio has started blaming Amazon almost exclusively saying they should've simply stayed and weathered some process here and it would've likely worked out, the company didn't have any patience for any democracy. I'm paraphrasing, I see you went on our Albany sister station, public radio station WAMC, the other day and were blaming the State Senate, particularly the State Senator from Long ISLAND City, Michael Gianaris. Why are you and the Mayor on different pages on who to blame for that falling apart?
Governor Cuomo: I don't think we're on different pages. I do believe Amazon should've stayed and fought the opposition. It was a vocal minority opposition. 70 percent of the people support Amazon, by the way, 25,000 jobs, $28 billion in revenue; it's the largest economic opportunity this City and State have ever had. The 25,000 jobs, just to put it into scale Brian, the next closest economic development transaction that this State has done has been 1,000 jobs. So, this was a phenomenal opportunity, and I do believe Amazon would have a national competitions and everybody was throwing laurels at their feet, when they came here and they had this opposition they were shocked, because we had won the competition, they were expecting an embrace. So, welcome to New York and I think they should've stuck it out, but I also think you had politicians playing their own local politics and the State Senate as a body represents the entire State and should not have differed to just a local politician's political interests. This was not a Western Queens issue, this was a statewide issue; it was a phenomenal opportunity for the whole downstate region and revenue for the whole State, and we shouldn't have turned it into a local political football. I think it was just irresponsible.
Brian Lehrer: Do you think that Gianaris and City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, who were both for it before they were against it, would have flipped were it not for the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the implications of that election and she's just happy they're not coming period. That they then got afraid of a grassroots backlash and a primary against them.
Governor Cuomo: Yes. Look, it is so absurd. We're in a competition. 234 applications. Every city, every state was dying to get Amazon to come. The state said we'll put forth the application only if the local politicians and community supports it. Senator Gianaris signed the letter of support. Van Bramer signed the letter of support. We win. Did the political momentum shift with now a progressive thought that says we shouldn't subsidize jobs coming to New York but it was a political shift and then they oppose the very application that they supported. They signed the darn application. We win. The same people who sign it then say oops the politics changed, I changed my opinion. You can't do business that way and this was transformative for New York City.
Brian Lehrer: The earnest argument, I think, by the grassroots activists is less about rage over the tax breaks than that Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez and others see Seattle, see Silicon Valley and think they should teach us that a tech giant like Amazon exacerbates inequality. Yes, it's 25,000 jobs but mostly for software engineers and other tech workers who are fine economically in any case while the damage that's done in gentrification and homelessness has been shown to be bigger than the benefits than those metro areas for the majority of people. They would say economic reality is more complicated than more tech jobs equals more growth equals more trickle down benefits. Maybe the way this plan was presented didn't acknowledge and account for that reality enough. What would you say?
Governor Cuomo: Hogwash, which is a new statement. I don't think I've ever said that before. The project brought 11,000 union jobs, construction and service workers, 11,000. Then brought tech jobs for young engineers, et cetera. Jobs for the people from the local public housing authority and $28 billion in revenue. They say, Brian, we were going to give them $3 billion. We were not giving them $3 billion. It was totally phony and made up. They were going to pay us about $31 billion in revenue for creating 25,000 jobs. If they did that, we would give them back 3. We get $28 billion. That's what it always was. And, well maybe there will be displacement etcetera. Ok, let's anticipate any negative consequence and we have $28 billion and let us correct for it. Well, there's going to be more people on the train. Then let's build a new subway station. Well we need more housing. Then we'll build more affordable housing. But you can't make growth the enemy of the city, otherwise you have stagnation.
Brian Lehrer: Last thing on this, it was reported that the day before Amazon announced the end of the deal, your office and the Retail Workers union and Amazon had agreed to a framework for moving forward and then the company stunned you and everyone by ditching us the next day. Can you confirm or describe what you agreed to on that Wednesday?
Governor Cuomo: Yeah, we had a good discussion. What made the decision for Amazon was—you talk about a local Senator. The State Senate deferred the State approval to that one Senator. And that one Senator said I am totally against it. And Amazon then said we don't see how this winds up happening because we have to go to the State board called the PACB. The Senate put the local politician on that board who said over my dead body. And Amazon said I don't see a way around this.
Brian Lehrer: You could have blocked that appointment I understand. Why didn't you?
Governor Cuomo: Yes, so I said I would block it and I said to the Senate give me a replacement who would say they would support Amazon. And the Senate wouldn't do it. The Senate said we'll give you someone who will be willing to talk to Amazon and the Senate told Amazon we'll appoint someone else if the Governor objects, but no promises someone who is open to negotiation. And Amazon said no negotiation, we just won a national competition. We have a signed, sealed deal. What do you mean negotiation? And they said goodbye.
Brian Lehrer: But that means they didn't get it, right? Because there is still a process.
Governor Cuomo: No, there was never a process to retrade the application that we signed and submitted. We went through a bid. It was an auction. Sealed bids - 234 sealed bids went in. Our bid was one of the lowest. You talk about our $3 billion. Newark offered $7 billion to go right across the river. But we offered a bid. We won. It was not, once you offer a bid, Brian, and it gets accepted, you don't then say well hold on a second, I want to renegotiate. You bid $10, you won. You can't now say I'm not paying 10, I only want to pay 7.
Brian Lehrer: We're out of time. I want to thank you for announcing here your agreement with the Mayor for a proposal for congestion pricing. Just tell me, is it your goal to get this through the legislature by April 1?
Governor Cuomo: That is always my goal and this was fixing news not breaking news, first time ever.
Brian Lehrer: Let's hope it fixes the MTA. Governor, thank you as always.
Governor Cuomo: Thank you Brian, thank you.