MTA retains high-powered attorney Roberta Kaplan to defend congestion pricing from NJ suit

Screenshot 2023-10-25 161135
Roberta Kaplan at a memorial to Edie Windsor outside the Stonewall Inn in 2017.
File Photo by Donna Aceto, Gay City News

The MTA has hired high-powered litigator Roberta Kaplan to defend its forthcoming congestion pricing program in federal court, as New Jersey pursues legal action to derail it.

Kaplan, a founding partner at Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP, is a prominent civil rights litigator noted for successfully representing Edie Windsor in her legal push to legalize same-sex marriage in the United States and E. Jean Carroll in her sexual abuse and defamation suit against Donald Trump. She also successfully helmed a lawsuit against a cadre of white supremacists who organized the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“I’m very excited that Roberta Kaplan, who is a major civil rights litigator, has joined the MTA team resisting the New Jersey lawsuit,” MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber told reporters following the agency’s monthly board meeting on Wednesday. “Because from my standpoint, that is a civil rights issue.”

The hiring was first reported Tuesday by the Daily News. Kaplan declined a request for comment from amNewYork Metro through a spokesperson for her firm.

The MTA is eyeing a spring 2024 start date for its congestion pricing program, which will charge an as-yet-undetermined toll on motorists entering Manhattan south of 60th Street, in a bid to reduce traffic and carbon emissions and generate money to invest in the MTA’s aging infrastructure. The transit agency’s contractor has already started installing toll gantries at ports of entry to the central business district, and an internal MTA panel is set to make final recommendations for tolling rates and rules in the coming months.

But looming over the process is the federal lawsuit filed by the Garden State in July, accusing the federal Department of Transportation of conducting a  rushed, shoddy environmental review of the impacts of the program. The MTA has stood by its 4,000-page environmental assessment, which Lieber has said “studied every intersection from here to Philadelphia” for potential adverse impacts.

The MTA was not named by New Jersey as a defendant in the suit, but chose to join due to a vested interest in defending the merits of congestion pricing in court. 

New Jersey is being represented in its effort by another high-powered litigator, Randy Mastro, who previously defended Chris Christie during the BridgeGate scandal at a $650-per-hour fee to Garden State taxpayers. The MTA did not disclose the fees it is paying to Kaplan when asked.

Congestion pricing, approved by New York lawmakers in 2019, is expected to generate about $1 billion per year in revenue, against which the MTA plans to raise $15 billion through bond issuance to fund major capital work. The money would go toward projects like expanding the Second Avenue Subway, making the subway system accessible for people with disabilities, modernizing decades-old train signals, and keeping the system in a state of good repair.

The program is currently on track to start in the spring; on Wednesday, Lieber said it must run for at least a year before the agency could start issuing bonds against the revenue. Any delay, as high-stakes litigation often brings, could lead to painful delays on infrastructure projects, Lieber said.

“Any delays have the potential for delaying projects. And we’re far enough along in the capital program that we have to start making contingency plans,” Lieber said. “If congestion pricing is delayed, there are potential consequences.”

A spokesperson for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy did not return a request for comment by press time.

Despite Kaplan’s pedigree, her career has not been without controversy.

In 2018, Kaplan became one of the co-founders of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which provides legal support to people who are subject to sexual harassment in their workplace and seek to hold their abusers accountable. But Kaplan was forced out of the group in 2021, after it was revealed she was consulted in a campaign to discredit women accusing former Gov. Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment.

Cuomo would ultimately resign his post as governor, with the fallout claiming the careers of several other high-profile people in the advocacy world, like fellow Time’s Up co-founder Tina Tchen and Human Rights Campaign president Alphonso David.