A Century of Free Bridges
May Be Coming to a Close,
Should $2 Toll Be Imposed?
Henry J. Stern
February 26, 2009
We had not intended to write today, but we have reflected on the proposal, supported by Speaker Silver, for a $2 toll on the bridges that have provided free passage over the East and Harlem Rivers for a century. The plan is to link the toll to enter Manhattan to the subway fare, which is about half the charge to cross other MTA bridges.
Sheldon Silver is one of the wisest men in Albany, and certainly the most able politician in either house or the executive chamber. The proposal is essentially to cut the baby in half, and the tolling advocates and their lobbyists are enthusiastic about it, knowing that some day soon they will get the other half. Of course, a toll is not a baby, and the Solomonic proposal Speaker would not be fatal. It could, however, have other adverse consequences for ordinary citizens..
Although it is late Friday afternoon, it seems timely for us to express a few reservations about the plan. This is not a literary essay or a legal brief; our questions and observations will be in bullet form. They are outlined roughly, and hopefully they will provoke other discussion by the decision-makers. We know that more learned people who have devoted much of their careers to transportation have views contrary to ours. But McNamara and Bundy were wrong on Vietnam. And how many masters of the universe were wrong on subprime mortgages?
We welcome the opinions of others, whether they agree or disagree with our viewpoint. We want to publish them on the internet with equal prominence. Decision-makers should have as much information as possible available to them before they decide on this matter. They should hear from the public as well as lobbyists, whether for businesses or non-profits. Please send your opinions to us at email@example.com, or telephone 212-564-4441.
1. For most subway riders, the actual fare is far less than two dollars. You can buy rides in discount packages, by the week, fortnight or month. Senior citizens pay half fare. Will the toll match these prices? If not, it will cost far more than a subway fare.
2. Tolls on facilities of the TBTA (the old Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, whose great name was extinguished by bureaucrats who renamed it MTA Bridges and Tunnels) have multiplied continually. The Triborough Bridge toll was 25 cents until 1968, when the MTA took it over. Since then, it has risen to $5 in cash, or $4.15 with an EZ pass. Other facilities have seen similar multiplication of tolls. When the transit fare rises, the MTA is more than likely to increase the tolls as well. It has done that for forty years. Subway fares rise because of higher costs of operation and construction. Bridge and tunnel tolls are increased to provide additional subsidy for the MTA. The majority of tolls collected already goes to the MTA. .
3. When it was proposed last year, congestion pricing was aimed at reducing traffic at peak hours, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The current plan imposes round-the-clock tolls. What traffic benefit is there to charging tolls in the middle of the night?
4. The MTA has a fundamental budget imbalance, in large part because its costs are utterly out of control. We have not seen any plans to cut costs except drastic service reductions in areas and times where service is already at its worst. The MTA is like a developer seeking a zoning change, whose architects display an ugly, boxy building just to show what he could build as a matter of right.
5. Financial problems should be resolved or alleviated by shared sacrifice. Here it is proposed to be shared by users and non-users of the system. There is nothing about sacrifice by employees or any other group that receives money or benefits from the transit system.
6. New York is one city, and people should have free access to go from one part of it to another. When Moses built bridges and tunnels from the 1930s on, reasonable tolls were imposed to offset the cost of construction and maintenance of the new facilities. When Nelson Rockefeller removed Moses in 1968 by making the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority a subsidiary of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (run by his aide, Bill Ronan), the bridges and tunnels were used increasingly as cash cows to support the remainder of the transit system. The theory was that if you use these new facilities, you should pay for them, and help out the subways as well.
7. Now the proposal is to expand the subsidizing class to include users of structures that have united the boroughs for over a century. When tolls were charged in the late 19th century, they tolls were measured in pennies, both for people, horses and livestock. . The great old bridges remained free for four generations, during depressions and wars. What has changed in the past decade so that the principle of free access between the boroughs must be abandoned?
8. The imposition of tolls will make it less likely that people from the outer boroughs will enter Manhattan for dining or recreational purposes. It will be a burden on those who have to enter Manhattan for health or medical reasons. It creates a barrier between the boroughs, and is certainly not in the tradition of ‘one city’. It will help to separate the gilded isle from the four outer boroughs, discouraging the riff-raff and the bridge and tunnel crowd from crossing the river into Manhattan.
9. The people of New York City, when polled on the subject, have repeatedly expressed their opposition to these tolls. Even in the face of push polling, to which we personally were subjected, voters are unwilling to impose this new tax upon themselves. Are their opinions of any consequence?
10. The machinery which must be constructed to photograph all license plates and calculate the tolls due will be incredibly expensive and, knowing the MTA, will take years to build. The off-site collection of the tolls from the drivers be difficult and time-consuming. From the past record of the hapless transit agency, entrusting them to build and manage a complex, untried system would be asking to be fooled again.
11. It would be interesting and instructive to learn about other large cities in the world which have implemented this form of tolling , and what their experience has been. Alexander Pope wrote: "Be not the first by which the new is tried; nor yet the last to set the old aside."
12. If it were not for the panic of recession, this proposal would not attract substantial support. It is historically inconsistent with the City of New York's values in allowing free access on its streets - on land and over water. No one knows by how much, if at all, the revenue received would outweigh the cost of construction and maintenance of the collection machinery, and pursuing the motorists who would have to be billed.
12 1/2. If the records show a debt is owed by a driver, his wife, child, friend, or the thief of his car, will his automobile registration be cancelled and his car towed and impounded, as is now done for parking tickets or other violations?
How many more police officers, traffic agents, city marshals and towmen will it take to perform these tasks? Who will pay them? Will the costs be charged to the MTA?
Please, spare us from this tsouris.
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