Hochul’s Ascent a Game-Changer for State Policy Toward New York City

New bus networks? A 421a renewal? Property tax and land use reform? Albany is NYC’s oyster as combative Cuomo goes down

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s departure could allow city leaders — including Mayor Bill de Blasio and likely future mayor Eric Adams — to push transit, infrastructure and housing policies at the state level that Cuomo has stymied for years. It could also center the decision-making on these policies in the five boroughs rather than in Albany. 

Congestion pricing, in particular, is one issue that advocates hope will advance under Gov.-designate Kathy Hochul. Cuomo set the wheels in motion for the new toll back in 2017, when he promised to implement the fee for motorists entering Manhattan below 60th Street. However, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — which Cuomo controls — has been dragging its feet on an environmental review process that the federal government requires before New York City can enforce congestion pricing. 

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“She needs to make clear to the MTA that this needs to happen now, so that congestion pricing can happen in months, not years,” said Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for transit advocacy group Riders Alliance. “She can bring it to fruition, and the sooner she does that, the sooner she builds trust with people downstate. The streets here are grinding to a halt, even with offices not fully occupied, and the transit system remains in crisis.”

Pearlstein added that Cuomo could have been pushing the environmental assessment forward, but he “has been distracted by his own personal problems and used the subway as a scapegoat for those problems, and he has slowed the city’s recovery rather than hastened it.”

Renae Reynolds, executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, argued that Hochul has an opportunity to assert her priorities when it comes to transit.  

“The fact that she rode the subway recently shows that she is thinking about the issues for downstate folks in New York City,” Reynolds said. She also noted that the lieutenant governor could decide to improve projects that heavily favor suburban commuters over New York City ones, like the LaGuardia AirTrain and the revamp of Penn Station. 

“There’s an approach that privileges people who can pay a little more for a more manicured experience on public transit, and then there’s one that looks at going beyond the next shiny megaproject and considers the social impacts of these projects,” said Reynolds. 

Like many other transit advocates, she hopes that Hochul will change course on the proposed $2.1 billion AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport. Critics, who refer to it as the “backwards AirTrain,” argue that it will improve airport commutes for relatively few New Yorkers. The route involves taking the 7 subway or Long Island Rail Road trains out to Willets Point, Queens, which is east of LaGuardia (and, thus, farther from Manhattan than the airport itself), in order to get on the AirTrain. 

Reynolds wants the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which would build the AirTrain, to consider alternatives, including extending the existing N and W trains from their current terminus at Astoria-Ditmars Boulevard roughly two miles to LaGuardia. One significantly cheaper alternative would be creating dedicated bus lanes to the airport for routes like the Q70, so that public transit riders can travel to the airport without worrying about LaGuardia’s constant and apparently never-ending traffic. 

A new approach to the project would involve “taking seriously some of the critiques that have come at the neighborhood level,” said Reynolds. “People from the historically African American community by the airport feel that this is limiting their access to the waterfront and privileging people who take the LIRR.”

Similarly, Hochul could bring a fresh set of eyes to Cuomo’s expensive plan to revamp Penn Station and redevelop the surrounding neighborhood. 

“If we are just creating a shinier 34th Street hub, we’re not really optimizing what that transit hub can do for us,” said Reynolds. She felt that public officials should be “looking at the future of transit in New York City, looking at the way our development patterns and job patterns are changing. We are advocating for through-running opportunities [for trains] at Penn Station, making the platforms better, and going beyond a Manhattan-centric view of transit.”

The MTA also has the opportunity to redesign outer borough bus networks, activists said. Plans to redesign both the Brooklyn and Queens bus networks have been on the drawing boards for a while, though they never seem to move past the planning stages. 

Eric Adams, as Brooklyn borough president, has advocated for the MTA to collect feedback from actual bus riders in more creative ways than it does now. In a letter to the agency last year, he pushed for the agency to meet riders where they are, by allowing them to scan QR codes at bus stops in order to submit feedback about proposed route changes and learn more about potential proposals. He has also supported the development of a bus rapid transit system, which would basically turn most bus routes into Select Bus Service routes

“There’s this real opportunity to provide much more equitable transit than the MTA has historically,” said Pearlstein. “It would ultimately provide a lot more economic opportunity to New Yorkers who have historically not had it. And, with the Adams administration coming in and pushing to do [bus service] better, making this a priority for her will be far greater.”

He added that Hochul could use this moment to push changes that will benefit working-class New Yorkers, who could help bolster her base in next year’s gubernatorial election. 

“There’s a lot of potential innovation that the MTA has largely shied away from, like LIRR fare changes and integration with bus fares,” Pearlstein noted. “Rebuilding transit service around workers won’t be the MTA’s first impulse, but a fresh, new governor could set that priority and create a much fairer transit system than the one we’ve known.”

Mitch Korbey, a real estate attorney and chair of the land use and zoning group at Herrick Feinstein, felt that Gov. Hochul might be more willing than Cuomo to move forward on issues like property tax reform, land use rules related to the state’s new marijuana program, and the new version of the 421a tax break for residential development, which is set to expire next summer. A better relationship between the mayor’s and the governor’s offices might translate to better policy, according to the lawyer.

“For years, it’s been rancor and nails on a chalkboard between City Hall and the governor’s office,” said Korbey. “Policy is important, but what drives it is communication. The presumptive mayor, Eric Adams, has reached out [to Hochul], and we’ve seen a spirit of dialogue that was missing at the beginning of de Blasio’s term. Instead of having an intense rivalry and one-upmanship, instead of that, you’ll hopefully have dialogue in the best interests of everyone.” 

He also hoped that Hochul would be less likely to implement top-down policies that are usually best left to city officials and planners, like Cuomo’s proposal to allow the owners of office buildings and hotels to convert their buildings to housing. 

“We need to get creative and innovative about ways to build new housing and convert buildings,” said Korbey. “We’ve got a lot of people in New York who are smart and these ideas need to percolate in the city, rather than zoning overrides done by folks who may not be as close to the people in New York, who should be writing zoning policy.”

Rebecca Baird-Remba can be reached at rbairdremba@commercialobserver.com.