NEW YORK, June 5 (Xinhua) — In a surprising move, New York Governor Kathy Hochul on Wednesday announced a halt to the highly controversial Manhattan congestion pricing plan.

The decision, which comes as New York gears up for the 2024 elections, has ignited discussions about the political and economic implications of the tolling program.

Hochul stated that she postponed the implementation of the congestion pricing plan due to concerns about the increasing cost of living and New York’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. She highlighted that office attendance in Manhattan has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, and the borough is still dealing with a commercial vacancy rate exceeding 20 percent.

“Given these financial pressures, I can not add another burden to working and middle-class New Yorkers or create another obstacle to our continued recovery,” Hochul said.

The Manhattan congestion pricing plan was first introduced and approved in 2019 under the administration of then New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. The plan aimed to establish a tolling system for vehicles entering the most congested areas of Manhattan, primarily south of 60th Street, during peak hours. This initiative was part of a broader effort to reduce traffic congestion, decrease pollution, and generate revenue for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to support improvements in public transit infrastructure.

However, New Jersey has legally contested the congestion-pricing plan, filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Transportation Department in 2023 for its approval of the toll. The administration of New Jersey State argued that the federal government needs to conduct a more comprehensive environmental impact study of the plan.

Reactions to the halt have been mixed. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy thanked Hochul for pausing the start of the congestion pricing. “Although we have had a difference of opinion with our colleagues in New York on congestion pricing implementation, we have always had a shared vision for growing our regional economy, investing in infrastructure, protecting our environment, and creating good-paying jobs on both sides of the Hudson River,” Murphy said in a statement.

Some mass transit and environmental advocates, who support the plan for its potential to reduce traffic congestion and pollution, have expressed disappointment. “It’s terrible news for transit riders in the entire region,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director for the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA.

The halt on Manhattan congestion pricing also appears to be influenced by the upcoming 2024 elections. The congestion pricing plan, which involves a 15 U.S. dollar toll for vehicles entering Midtown Manhattan, has faced significant opposition, particularly from suburban and outer-borough residents who view it as a financial burden. This opposition has been harnessed by Republicans, who aim to use the toll as a key issue to challenge Democrats in the 2024 elections.

Republican strategists see the toll as an opportunity to criticize Democrats for adding to the financial strain on voters, especially in a period marked by economic challenges such as inflation. They plan to highlight the toll in their campaigns to gain voter support and put Democrats on the defensive.

Hochul’s decision to halt the implementation might be a strategic move to mitigate potential political damage and address voter concerns ahead of the election.