Fall 2002, p.14-15

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

East River tolls will reduce traffic congestion and provide money for better transit and city services.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 transit passes.
  • $65 million/yr: Bridge maintenance.
  • $60 million/yr: State-mandated subsidy
    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 revenue.

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