Interviews & Profiles

Pushing back on congestion pricing

An interview with Kenneth Zebrowski, chair of the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions.

Kenneth Zebrowski, chair of the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions

Kenneth Zebrowski, chair of the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions Assembly

As head of the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, Kenneth Zebrowski has been critical of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s congestion pricing plan and its lack of support for transit riders living west of the Hudson River. The Rockland County lawmaker wants to see better coordination between New Jersey Transit and the MTA for single-track lines and more express buses for suburban commuters. He also understands how critical the Gateway rail tunnel project will be for the downstate region. Even though Zebrowski is leaving the Legislature after his term ends this year, expect to see him play a role in the state’s transportation future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s your opinion on the congestion pricing plan set to go into effect in Manhattan? How will it impact your constituents?

I’ve been a longtime opponent of congestion pricing. I think it’s unfair for my constituents. We’re west of the Hudson River in an MTA district, yet have very little service. The train stations in Rockland County are run by New Jersey Transit. They’re single-track, and any time there’s issues, they take them out on us. Being single-track, they’re inefficient. We pay the same taxes but don’t have the same ability to get over the river and down to lower Manhattan. The word congestion pricing suggests an attempt to reduce congestion, but that’s not an option for a lot of my folks, especially those who travel down for off hours like nurses, doctors or firefighters, or those who work in the financial and real estate sectors. 

More broadly this is a concept that doesn’t make sense especially post-COVID. We’re trying to figure out ways to get people back into the city. We have commercial real estate concerns, and I think this will exacerbate them. The approval of congestion pricing predates my appointment as chair, so now that I’m chair of the committee, the biggest issue is that this has passed and there’s been no alternatives to fund the MTA capital plan to what’s necessary. So to roll it back now would require a replacement. I’m not naive to think that without the revenue for congestion pricing, the MTA capital plan would be deficient in a way that would really hurt the state of good repair for the system. So I tried to be realistic about this now, and if it’s not going to be implemented we’re going to figure out another way.

Were you in favor of any other exemptions that were not included or any other changes, assuming it goes forward?

First and foremost I think there should have been an exemption for folks who don’t have significant or sufficient mass transit opportunities. West of Hudson commuters – Rockland, Orange counties – we don’t have the capability of getting across the river easily. 

Second of all, our folks take the (George Washington) Bridge for the most part since it’s the most direct route, they are being double-tolled, whereas somebody in Jersey who comes through the tunnels gets an offset. The tunnels land within the zone so they didn’t want to charge someone going in and out of the tunnel, but the average person coming in is not as aware of the geographic boundaries. Due to the quirks of how the system is set up, someone who is actually paying those taxes in Rockland will be charged more than somebody who doesn’t pay. … Being that I think $15 is already expensive, you’ll be squeezing the balloon and it’ll affect other folks who can’t afford it. While I want more exemptions, I recognize that those exemptions will exacerbate the problem.

How well does the Metro-North Railroad serve your constituents? Do you expect increased Metro-North ridership once congestion pricing is implemented? 

I do think the MTA has taken steps to recognize service deficiencies west of Hudson and are figuring out what they can do to alleviate that. The long-term project that will be the most helpful is the Gateway project. Although they’re not running that project, they’ve been supportive of my efforts to get that up and running. 

It’s not just the tunnel. You need the Bergen loop and Penn Station redevelopment project for additional slots. That project would allow trains west of Hudson to get direct service into Manhattan. We’re a decade out but that decade will come. We need to not allow that project to be short-changed so that it really is transformative regionally. 

In addition, I’ve been working with them on additional things they can do, given the current budget and our geographical situation. I think we’ll get additional ferry service from Rockland County to Ossining. There will be some discounts for bus routes and discounts for parking over on Metro-North lines and in Westchester to both help and encourage Rockland residents to take mass transit options. We’re trying to figure out additional bus routes and efficiency measures that can be done. This administration has shown more attention to Rockland and west of Hudson.

Do you think we’ll see new rail routes?I don’t think we’ll see a new train track being laid, but the thing that will help will be passing sidings, that will allow trains to pull over while another one runs. And the Bergen loop in New Jersey will allow routes into Spring Valley, Suffern and Nanuet and up into Orange County to loop around under the new tunnel under the Hudson. That’s the rail expansion we need. 

There’s been no passing sidings proposed for Rockland and some proposed for Orange County.  We have some geographical issues about where to put those. We’re certainly thinking about places in New Jersey. One of the quirks is we’re dependent so much on New Jersey, and we’re not a priority for them. We’re certainly pushing the MTA. They’ve been on our side in trying to get New Jersey to treat us better. The MTA contracts with NJ Transit, and they’ve withheld money for violations of the contract and put money into capital projects in our stations, whether it’s renovating stations or putting in disability access. While it doesn’t solve the problem for us, the MTA is making sure the money they’re saving is invested in our service.

Are there any big Metro-North projects underway or in the works that you support or oppose? 

We want to make sure we’re treated equitably for the other services of the MTA. That means making sure our rolling stock is updated and that all the technological advances are invested in Metro-North as they are on the LIRR or in New York City subways. So probably the biggest infrastructure need is improving our rolling stock. We’re breaking ground next week on renovating the Croton-Harmon Yards with infrastructure investments there. Investments are being made and that’s important to the counties in the region and residents north of New York City.

Have you been monitoring the contract fight between TWU, including Metro-North workers, and Gov. Kathy Hochul? Any thoughts on how you’d like to see it resolved? 

I’d like to see it solved with less vitriol. These are challenging times and challenging issues. While I want to ensure workers are treated fairly, I think some of the accusations that have been leveled at the governor are unfair.

New York just passed a state budget a few weeks late. Were there any big developments for mass transit included in it? 

Last year, we took enormous steps to close the MTA’s operating deficit. It took a lot of hard work and it shows that New York is serious about transportation. We’re not going to let our transportation systems, especially our largest transportation system, wither from a lack of funding. What we did last year will set the stage for the system to continue to thrive. This year, in particular, we built on that. So there was additional operating support for the MTA. 

We also budgeted increases for upstate transit systems, an 8.7% increase ($330 million) and a 5.6% increase for non-MTA downstate transit systems ($551 million). We also budgeted for the Second Avenue subway expansion planning and Interboro Express and Rochester’s intermodal system ($18 million). And we made sure New York contributed to the start of the Gateway process.

We’ve had a lot of issues with fare evasion and that’s something that affects the bottom line of the MTA, with estimates as much as $700 million in fare evasions. We’ve worked with the MTA to come up with increased fines and an equitable enforcement structure to turn the tide on fare evasion and toll evasion. License plates have been altered to evade tolls too. Not only is it wrong, it affects the bottom line. 

Was there any other key legislation affecting the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that advanced through the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions this year? 

There’s a few other items that I’m not sure will get over the finish line. I sponsored a bill dealing with master insurance contracts, which would save some money and allow firms to piggyback off a master insurance contract. 

You’re not running for reelection. What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishments in the Assembly, including anything related to transit?

I’ve loved this job, but it’s time for me to get off the ballot for a little while. I’ve got three little kids, and running for office every other year is difficult. I’m not retiring, but it’s time for me to personally get off the ballot. I know only one way to do this job, at 100 miles an hour. Electoral activity, nights and weekends are not conducive to my family right now. The job aspect I could do forever, I really enjoy (it).

Public policy is complicated and one of the things I feel like I have seen over the years that has been a detriment to public policy is how politicized and polarized things have become. Government shouldn’t be daily entertainment. It should be professional and deliberative and a little more boring. We want stability and a deliberative process. My biggest accomplishments in the past couple years as chair of this committee are hopefully taking a global view of transportation, stabilizing the MTA and increasing efficiency of service in the subway system, while at the same time investing in infrastructure upstate such as the bus systems and mass transit capabilities, and giving a nod to long-neglected areas like commuters west of the Hudson.

Where is upstate? 

I draw the line somewhere in the Hudson Valley. If I’m traveling the Thruway it starts somewhere between (exits) 17 and 18. Maybe I’ll round it off at Exit 18. On the train? I don’t know. Which station is it? I would say it’s certainly north of Rockland County near New Paltz. Say north of Poughkeepsie.