Interviews & Profiles

The fight against congestion pricing still isn’t over

An interview with Staten Island Borough President Vito Fossella

Staten Island Borough President Vito Fossella

Staten Island Borough President Vito Fossella Maureen Maydick

Staten Island Borough President Vito Fossella has been one of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s chief antagonists after filing a lawsuit to block congestion pricing from occurring. Fossella has argued that traffic on the Staten Island Expressway will worsen and that the federal government should have more time to run an environmental study to determine the plan’s effects on the North Shore’s air quality. In addition, he wants to see better express bus service and expanded ferry routes so it won’t take two hours to get from the borough to midtown Manhattan. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the status of your legal challenge against congestion pricing? Do you have a sense of the timeline, or any expectation of when it may be resolved?

From a process point of view, all parties have been given May 17 as a date (on) which to appear and file motions and begin the first real day in court. My understanding is that the judge has set aside one full day for arguments, and beyond that, I don’t know what will happen.

Our hope is that at least from a Staten Island perspective, the MTA’s own study demonstrates that traffic and air pollution will get worse on Staten Island and we’ll be forced to pay for it. We maintain that it’s overall not good, but when you consider the communities in the North Shore that have been designated environmental justice areas by the city of New York, it almost flips it on its head of intentionally making things worse.

You’re teaming up with the United Federation of Teachers and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on this lawsuit. What’s it like to work with Michael Mulgrew, whose union generally has more left-leaning stances than you do?

I give Mike Mulgrew a tremendous amount of credit and applaud him for the courage he showed by helping us with this lawsuit. They’ve been nothing but a pleasure to work with, him and the legal team. We don’t control everything in these types of cases, but it’s been nothing but honest conversations on how to proceed and work together.

Do you expect congestion pricing to move forward on June 30 as the MTA has announced?

Our hope is no, but I’m biased. And if we didn’t think we had a shot, we wouldn’t be filing this suit.

The city is saying we have to do an environmental impact statement just to widen the lane by 10 feet. Now with congestion pricing, which is clearly transforming the region, they’re saying the environmental impact statement wasn’t required, but a lesser environmental assessment was required. We think another EIS will be required to take in all the negative impacts that will be affected by the policy. If that is ordered by the court, then there’s no way that June 30 will happen.

You don’t think it was thorough enough?

At a simple level, the assessment will show that traffic and air quality on Staten Island will get worse. That’s why we feel it’s wrong for a governmental agency to harm people. To go into it and intentionally harm and hurt people is not right. With that said, we believe the assessment is too low of a bar for a project of this magnitude, which is why we believe an EIS is more warranted for something of this scale.

It’s more thorough and more variables have to be analyzed. In order for a project to proceed, they would prefer an environmental assessment that is less involved. An EIS might reveal more negative consequences. Once this thing goes in, it’s here forever.

Are you in touch in any way with any of the other parties challenging congestion pricing?

Not really. We had very early conversations with the Jersey folks, but because our points are different from Jersey, we decided it would not make sense (to sue with them) and we would go in our own direction. And a handful of elected officials reached out to ask to join the lawsuit and in every instance we said “yes.” I don’t think we said “no” to anybody.

Is there anything the MTA could do to address your concerns about congestion pricing, apart from scrapping the program entirely?

That’s fair, but the reality is here we are, how many months later, and nobody from the MTA has reached out to ask that question. You would think that would be the most logical first question, “What can we do?” We see Staten Island will be negatively impacted, traffic will get worse. You pay two tolls to get to Manhattan and we’re asking you to pay a third toll. What can we do to make things better? They haven’t asked this question once. The history of the MTA related to Staten Island is insufficient investment, which is why we don’t have a subway and have one train track going from St. George to Tottenville and back. Why do so many people have to take a car? What if the other boroughs only had one subway? What if the LIRR stopped at the city border? What do people in those areas have to do? They have to drive, because the train doesn’t even go to the Verrazzano Bridge. We don’t have mass transit options because the MTA failed in the last 50 years to invest. As we speak they’re spending billions of dollars on other transit initiatives in other parts of the city. What do we get? Crumbs off the table.

If congestion pricing does go forward, do you have a sense of how the influx of funds might benefit your borough?

There are clearly things that could be better. Once again, we’re dealing with this for decades, not a month, not a year, but for decades. Here we are, we need some more stuff. People would prefer to use mass transit if they drive. They pay parking tolls and parking fees. Even if they use mass transit it could take an hour (or) 45 minutes each way to get to Manhattan. That’s three to four hours of people’s lives just sitting on a bus or taking two and three modes of transportation. … There aren’t other regions that are taking three modes of transportation just to get to work.

What would you like to see expanded?

I’d like a more holistic approach. Because we’re so dependent on our cars we have to transition. We should have the MTA step in and look at what is the path of transition, how do we integrate Staten Island with the rest of the system that we have seen anywhere else? … Can they think of a way to run a train over the Verrazzano Bridge and integrate it? I don’t know. Somehow they need to integrate it into the system to give people a reason to jump onto a train and find their way to downtown Brooklyn or downtown Manhattan without three modes of transit.

We have a situation on the (Staten Island Expressway) where four lanes shrinks to three, which creates gridlock all day long. One thing that would help is to extend the lane to the Goethals Bridge. We’ve lobbied for that and it’s been rejected.

The MTA should also figure out how to provide high-speed ferry service to encourage people to get out of their cars and jump on a ferry. They could, but they don’t. Our view is, the MTA is in the transit business. They take a couple billion (dollars) alone from the Verrazzano Bridge and they deploy that capital into other transit options. Why not use a ferry and say we’ll add a ferry to the transit option?

On an unrelated note, New York City Mayor Eric Adams had some successes in the latest state budget. What’s your take on the budget and what it means for your borough?

Our No. 1 priority was rejected by the state this year, which was extending the Staten Island Expressway. A top concern was keeping crime down, traffic and transportation. We’ve been given no relief in my opinion to address those needs. I know what will happen, which is they’ll get all the money if congestion pricing is implemented and use it on existing infrastructure and they won’t be able to use it on new projects.

The state will also say we have X amount of dollars and we can’t put it on new projects. I think that’s what MTA will do. We have to use it on this station or rebuild a new platform. That’s what I believe will happen.

You and other Staten Islanders have raised the possibility of seceding from the city. Is that anything more than a political ploy? How likely is it that, in our lifetime, Staten Island might actually secede? 

My understanding is the (Independent Budget Office) didn’t take into account the current things and looked at things 30 years ago. I don’t know if they fully looked at the commercial tax base as it exists currently. There’s one big assumption, which is there are things the city does that perhaps the city of Staten Island would not do. If the city were independent of Staten Island, we would not be a right to shelter city. … I don’t think it adequately reflects what the people of Staten Island want. What we want to do, and intend to do, is get a much deeper thorough study of the good, bad and ugly of secession and once we get those results we’ll let the people of Staten Island see, treat them like adults and say, “OK, are you in favor of this or no?”

My hope is in a year or less we’ll have the results of the study and that will be the best, most logical step in determining whether secession would happen or not.