Fall 2003, p.14

Sensible Transportation
T.A. and Straphangers Release Major New Toll Study
Groups find East River bridge tolls would cut traffic in Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City

T.A. and Straphangers Release Major New Toll StudyAt the end of September, the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign and Transportation Alternatives issued a comprehensive 58-page report assessing the revenue, traffic, mobility and equity impacts of tolling the City's currently free East River bridges. The report was prepared by Bruce Schaller, a widely-respected transportation analyst who has worked for MTA New York City Transit and the Taxi and Limousine Commission. It synthesizes a vast amount of data covering traffic patterns, speeds, travel surveys and other sources.

The report concludes that tolling the bridges offers compelling benefits to New York City, including reduced traffic congestion in the Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City neighborhoods surrounding the bridges and on the bridges themselves as well as significant revenue for expensive bridge repair and maintenance. The report makes a number of other key points. First, the City's East River bridges are very expensive to maintain. Second, technology has made huge toll plazas obsolete and allows motorists to pay tolls without stopping or having to set up a toll account in advance. This means that no cash lanes are needed. Finally, the report again confirms that East River bridge users are much more affluent than transit riders or the general public. In recent months, the Independent Budget Office and Bridge Toll Advocacy Project have also released reports that use different methodologies but reach similar conclusions as the T.A./Straphangers report. Read the entire report at www.transalt.org/info/tollreport.pdf.

Despite the overwhelming consensus of all three reports that East River bridge tolls would be a big plus for New York City, there is limited political momentum for them. Mayor Bloomberg championed new tolls to solve the City's budget problems. But his low standing in public opinion polls and the fast approaching mayoral election campaign have prompted him to back away from tolls for the moment. Still, given that the City faces a $2 billion budget deficit in 2004 despite new taxes as well as persistent traffic congestion on and near the bridges, the argument for tolls remains stronger than ever. 

Community Support

Toll opponents fear that tolls would reduce patronage at restaurants and other retail establishments in neighborhoods near the bridges, like Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City. But prominent community groups like the Brooklyn Heights Association have already leant their support to tolling the City-owned East River bridges. Though information to assess the full economic impact of tolls does not currently exist, local businesses and community groups should look to the overwhelmingly positive response of London's once-skeptical businesses to the city's congestion charging program. In a survey of companies conducted by a London business organization, 49% said that they believed that congestion charging is working, 35% remained undecided and 16% thought that it is not working. When asked about the economic impacts of congestion charging, 17% believed that the impact on the overall London economy has been positive, 15% believed it to be negative and 66% responded that they were neutral or that it was too early to tell.

Big Toll Myths Busted

Myth: The City-owned East River bridges are free.
Reality: "Free" bridges cost taxpayers a bundle. Tolling them will raise much needed money for maintaining the bridges and improving the city's public transportation system.

  • "Free" bridges cost $600 million to maintain and operate and $1.62 billion to rebuild over the last decade.
  • "Free" bridges will cost $600 million to maintain and operate and $833 million to rebuild over the next decade.
  • Tolls will raise between $482 million and $522 million for NYC.
  • Tolls will raise between $58 and $106 million for the MTA.

Myth: "Free" bridge crossings help ease congestion and decrease travel times.
Reality: "Free" bridges cause traffic congestion and increase travel time.

  • Traffic on the free East River bridges has increased 20% since 1981, compared to only 6% on tolled crossings.
  • Traffic on the "free" East River bridges has increased travel time, particularly on neighborhood streets surrounding the bridges.
  • Tolling the East River bridges would reduce traffic on the bridges by 24-26%.

Myth: Tolling requires toll plazas and cash, and will cause traffic backups.
Reality: Modern "non-stop" toll collection technology does not require toll plazas, cash or traffic backups.

  • By using a combination of E-ZPass and London-style license plate cameras and instant payment systems, no cash lanes and no toll plazas would be needed. Traffic would not need to stop to pay tolls.

Myth: Tolling the bridges discriminates against low-income New Yorkers.
Reality: Tolls would have little impact on low-income New Yorkers.

  • Motorists crossing the bridges are skewed toward the upper income ranges. Lower income New Yorkers are far more likely to take public transportation--and pay the recently increased subway and bus fare--than to use the bridges. Thus, equity considerations support the argument that bridge users should, like transit riders, pay for what they use.
  • 8% of bridge users have household incomes under $25,000, compared with 16% of transit riders using the subway, bus or commuter rail to cross the East River.
  • At the other end of the income scale, 21% of bridge users but only 16% of transit riders crossing the East River have incomes over $100,000.

Tolls Would Reduce Traffic in Downtown Brooklyn, Long Island City and Canal Street

A major benefit of bridge tolls is reducing traffic congestion on surrounding streets. In both Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City a substantial portion of traffic on neighborhood streets are motorists who use the "free" bridges. Residents in these neighborhoods must put up with the noise and filth of the daily through-traffic. And local businesses must contend with obstructed access to limited loading and unloading space as well as slow travel times to other parts of the city. Tolls will reduce traffic congestion in Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City by 12-14%.

Smith Street

Smith Street

Downtown Brooklyn
East River bridge-bound motor vehicle traffic comprises 43% of all motor vehicle traffic entering Downtown Brooklyn during the morning rush hour and 45% during the midday.

Tolls on the bridges would reduce the number of vehicles entering Downtown Brooklyn by 12%. This means that traffic per day will be reduced by the following amounts:

  • 1,300 on Hicks Street
  • 1,400 on Court Street
  • 1,000 on Smith Street
  • 800 on Clinton Street

Thomson Avenue

Thomson Avenue

Long Island City
Fifty-seven percent of the motor vehicle traffic entering the area during the morning peak hour is bound for the Queensboro Bridge.

Tolls would reduce the number of vehicles entering Long Island City during the morning peak by 14%. This means that traffic in the area between the hours of 8 and 9 am will be reduced by the following approximate amounts:

  • 390 on Thomson Avenue
  • 280 on 21st Street
  • 180 on Queens Boulevard

Canal Street

Canal Street

Canal Street
Currently, many truckers avoid the one-way, Staten Island-bound toll on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge by using the Manhattan Bridge instead. Trucks that divert to Manhattan add to severe traffic congestion on Canal Street, a heavily traveled commercial street in Chinatown, and at approaches to the Holland Tunnel.
Instituting tolls on the East River bridges would reduce the incentive for truckers to avoid the Verrazano, and thus reduce traffic congestion and air pollution on Canal Street. 

Fast, Automated Toll Collection Already a Success in NYC and LondonFast, Automated Toll Collection Already a Success in NYC and London

The traffic impact of tolls on neighborhoods surrounding the City-owned East River bridges is a key issue. In discussions of tolls in the 1970s and 1980s, it was difficult to imagine implementing tolls because of fears of giant toll plazas and huge traffic jams. But advances in tolling technology mean that motorists can be tolled without toll plazas or having to stop their vehicles. East River bridge tolls would use a
combination of E-ZPass, which is used by more than half of New York City area motorists, and London-style license plate cameras for non-E-ZPass motorists.

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