East River Bridge Tolls
Move to Center Stage
There is an old saying,
"money talks, baloney walks." When it comes to East River bridges,
the money is talking loud and clear. According to the Mayor and City Council
speaker, New York City faces years of $5 billion deficits and the worst fiscal
crisis in its modern history. These desperate times call for (politically)
desperate measures, and the Mayor's budget includes East River Bridge tolls
starting in 2004 as "Out-Year Gap Closing Measures." The Mayor
projects toll revenue of $100 million in 2004, $500 million in 2005 and $800
million in 2006. T.A.'s best bet is that the City or MTA will install tolls on
the East River bridges by 2005.
New Yorkers have been talking
about tolling the East River bridges for decades. One New Yorker, William
Vickrey, even won a Nobel Prize in economics for describing how peak-period
tolls reduce traffic. But politicians do not care about rational
transportation policy if it means challenging a beloved entitlement of their
most affluent constituents.
There are Five Reasons Why
East River Bridge Tolls are Coming Soon:
- The Mayor and City Council
desperately need them.
- The City Council has the
authority to enact them-without the approval of the state legislature or
governor. For years it was assumed otherwise, but legal research
commissioned by T.A. and the Straphangers Campaign found that the City has
the clear authority to impose tolls. (See www.transalt.org.)
- People think they are the
best option in tough times. A Quinnipiac University poll in July
found that New Yorkers prefer bridge tolls two to one to higher taxes or
transit fares. In fact, tolls were the top choice in every borough.
- Non-stop tolling
technology like EZ-Pass does not require elaborate toll plazas and is
relatively quick and easy to install.
- Public sympathy for
protesting motorists is going to be very low because transit fares (and
MTA tolls) are going up, and city services are being cut.
Why T.A. Supports East
River Bridge Tolls
Bridge tolls have a distinct
advantage over other traffic and tax proposals: they stand to benefit nearly
every New Yorker. Not only will the tolls generate big money for the city-up
to $800 million each year-they will also work wonders by reducing the number
of cars entering Manhattan, and lessen traffic congestion and its assorted
ills, which now cost New Yorkers billions. Bridge tolls will encourage many
drivers to eliminate a few car trips each week, which will add up to faster
trips for all the other drivers. Eliminating just 10% of the traffic at
congested times reduces travel delays for motorists by 50%. Plumbers,
electricians and other commercial drivers will reap huge benefits; their time
is money and it is extremely costly for them to sit in bridge traffic for half
an hour a day.
- Fewer Cars. To
avoid paying a toll every day, some drivers will switch some trips to
carpooling or transit, resulting in fewer cars on the bridges and
connecting highways. Only about a quarter of car trips are work related,
and many of these trips can be shifted to the subways or commuter rail, or
consolidated into fewer trips.
- Less Traffic and
Cleaner Air on Streets Surrounding Bridges and in Manhattan. The
biggest beneficiaries of tolls, contrary to popular belief, will be
residents of Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods who live on the
traffic-clogged streets approaching the bridges. Currently, they live with
horrendous traffic jams, air pollution and honking. Tolls will reduce--not
increase--traffic on their streets, especially if peak hour tolls are
high. Clearly, Manhattan will also benefit. It is estimated that every
mile driven in Manhattan results in $1.50 in costs from air pollution,
crash-related deaths and injuries, delayed emergency services and buses,
vibration and noise. The motorists entering Manhattan over the East River
bridges currently pay nothing towards the enormous costs that they are
imposing on the general public.
- In NYC, Free Bridges
Fall Apart. An often overlooked, but powerful reason for new tolls is
that tolled bridges are kept in good condition. At one time during the
early 1990s, about half of the 35-some traffic lanes on the Brooklyn,
Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro Bridge were closed for emergency
repairs. In contrast, not once has a lane on the MTA's tolled bridges been
closed because it was about to fall into the river. Bridges are expensive
to maintain, and maintenance is one of the first things cut during a
fiscal crisis. Lack of maintenance funding led to the reconstruction of
the Williamsburg Bridge and shut down J and M line service for years.
Likewise, since the late 1980s, emergency closures on the Manhattan Bridge
have disrupted service on the N,R,B,D,Q subway lines. All told, millions
of subway riders have had their subway service ended or slowed.
- Some Toll Money Should
Go to Bridge Maintenance and Transit. Pro-transit groups like T.A.
would like to see the bulk of East River bridge tolls go to keeping the
bridges in good condition and improving the transit system. But unless the
MTA takes over the bridges, this is not likely. By far the biggest reason
new tolls are a realistic possibility is that the Mayor and City Council
believe that the political pain they suffer from imposing the tolls will
be less than that of cutting $800 million in vital city services. Thus, it
is a good bet that toll revenue will be used only to pay for existing city
services. This said, one possible scenario is that the City will lease the
East River Bridges to the MTA. The MTA has experience running big tolling
operations, will be much more likely to keep the East River Bridges in
good condition and can relieve the City of $545 million annual transit and
bridge related costs.
Ed Note: Thank you to Steven M. O'Neill of Bridgetolls.org for his
contribution to this piece.
Myths and Malarkey
Elected officials in Brooklyn
and Queens, Borough Presidents Marty Markowitz and Helen Marshall prominent
among them, claim that East River Bridge tolls are bad for New York. Among
their claims are that motorists will jam already crowded subway lines, giant
toll plazas will destroy "renaissance" areas like Queensboro Plaza
and toll-related traffic jams will pollute the air and poor motorists (an
oxymoron in NYC) will suffer. Any truth to these concerns? Not really.
Claim: East River
Bridge tolls will create congestion and air pollution.
Fact: The opposite is true. Tolls will reduce traffic and air pollution
by reducing the number of cars crossing the bridges at all times. Peak hour
pricing will reduce traffic even further; eliminating just 10% of the traffic
at congested times reduces travel delays for motorists by 50%. Additionally,
if tolled, the East River bridges will carry less traffic because fewer
motorists will detour to them to avoid existing tolls-a substantial cause of
traffic on neighborhood streets near the Brooklyn and Queensboro bridges.
Lastly, traffic at the Queens and Brooklyn entrances to the East River bridges
is already atrocious. Queensboro Plaza is a huge traffic sewer, and the
entrances to the three Brooklyn Bridges are barely less appalling. The
neighborhoods near these urban disaster zones suffer mightily from bridge
traffic. The idea that they will suffer even more from tolls is perverse.
Claim: East River
bridge tolls are an unfair imposition on Brooklyn and Queens motorists.
Fact: Subway and bus riders pay $3 round-trip to use the bridges, and
they do not contribute to traffic problems or air pollution. Additionally,
many motorists from these boroughs already pay at tolled crossings.
Claim: East River
bridge tolls sever the boroughs from each other.
Fact: Only 5% of commuters from Brooklyn and Queens into Manhattan
drive. The three bridge crossings between The Bronx and Queens have been
tolled for decades.
Claim: East River
Bridge tolls will hurt poor people.
Fact: Car ownership and use in New York City is directly related to
household income. On the whole, poor people do not have cars or drive; they
take transit. Additionally, poor people cannot afford steep Manhattan parking
costs. Census figures show that in the poorest parts of the city, fewer than
15% of households have a car.
Claim: Giant toll
plazas will sprout at bridge entrances.
Fact: Overhead EZ-Pass readers will make big toll plazas unnecessary
and allow for non-stop tolling. New EZ Cash Passes, which can be purchased for
cash, are under development and will be easily available at places like
bodegas, drug stores and token booths. Not only will they be easy to get, but
they will also preserve a motorist's anonymity. Motorists without an EZ-Pass
will have their licenses photographed and be sent a bill-a system already in
use in Toronto, Singapore and other cities in the developing world.
(Note: A greatest hits
collection of idiotic anti-toll comments can be found at: www.queenscourier.com/archives/2002/lead022802b.htm).
One Possibility: City
Deals Bridges to MTA
Many insiders believe that
the City should sell the East River bridges to the MTA in exchange for a big
one-time payout or hefty annual lease and the assumption of some of the City's
transit-related costs. Among these costs are student transit passes, bridge
maintenance, the annual transit subsidy and subsidies for the DOT franchise
bus fleet in Brooklyn and Queens. The argument is that the MTA is in the
business of providing and paying for public transit and that the City is not;
in addition, the MTA does not do a particularly good job of maintaining its
bridges, running buses or finding money for transit. Transit advocates come
down on both sides of the issue. Some fear that upstate Republicans will
siphon off too much toll money and observe that city government is much more
open and democratic than the secretive MTA. However, there is a compelling
logic to giving the transit agency control over a potential transit funding
source. The NY Times reported in a prominent article that East River bridge
talks between the City and the MTA were underway.
What the City Would Want
for Giving East River Bridges to the MTA
MTA Would Take Over the
Following NYC Costs
(All numbers are approximate):
- $150 million/yr: State
mandated transit subsidies.
- $140 million/yr: Cost of
subsidizing franchise bus fleet in Brooklyn and Queens.
- $130 million/yr: Student
- $65 million/yr: Bridge
- $60 million/yr:
of LIRR stations in NYC.
- $545 million/yr: Total
Plus: Some billions in future rebuilding costs.
What the MTA would get:
- $800 million in annual
Read the latest news on this