Monday, March 02, 2009

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, 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.


#538 02.26.2009 1248 wds


  1. Anonymous11:17 AM

    Hi Henry,

    Was it Moses or Robert Moses who built bridges and tunnels from the 30's on (point 6)??? Just kidding. I probably missed an earlier mention of his full name, so it made me laugh.

    I like tolls for income, but I hate them for slowing down already slow traffic. My vote would depend on the net revenue after construction costs and manning the toll booth costs are taken into account.

    Personally, I think the City should sell Manhattan to the Chinese (not for $24, but more like $24 billion). We'd get out of the fiscal crisis and get more Chinese restaurants. What could be better for New Yorkers?

    -Joe Cherner

  2. Anonymous11:18 AM

    No toll on Wmbrg, Man, Bklyn Bridges por favor!
    Traffic will be horrendous on in Tribeca, on Canal St., Kenmare, Broome, Varick, The Bowery, Flatbush, Broadway in Wmbrg, Tillery, onramps to BQE, etc. etc.
    I live downtown - have had a car in NYC since I was a teen. Work using the car. My personal transport style is this - daytime, some nights - subway/bike/walk Weekends, some nights - 4 cyl car - when going West - Holland Tunnel North - GWB, Willis Av bridge East - Battery Tunnel, Midtown Tunnel, 59th St bridge or any one of the downtown bridges I tell you all this to indicate that I sometimes pay for East River crossings, sometimes don't, depending on travel destination.


  3. Anonymous11:20 AM

    A Better Way to Meet the MTA’s Capital Needs

    In dealing with the MTA’s capital budget, there are two alternatives which are far superior to tolling the bridges & tunnels: Comptroller William Thompson car weight plan and the commuter tax.

    Once the MTA gets control of the bridges and tunnels, it’s over. After the MTA invests millions in surveillance cameras and other sophisticated equipment, it would be almost impossible to take the bridges back without getting into serious legal wrangles. In addition, the MTA would set the tolls and use the money for whatever projects they decided regardless of the value to transportation and regardless of what the people thought. The MTA’s long record of wasteful spending for unnecessary projects certainly suggests this.

    On the other hand, if the NYS Legislature gives the revenues from either a commuter tax or the car weight tax to the MTA, the Legislature remains in charge: They set the price. They can either raise or lower the tax; they can even abolish it without any legal problems. The Legislature can also attach conditions. Thus, the revenue could be spent on a third track for the 2nd Avenue subway, a 10th Avenue station on the #7 line, safeguards against flooding, new non-CBTC signals, etc. but not for non-transportation projects such as the Fulton Transit Center building or a new luxury headquarters over the West Side railyards. The MTA’s free-wheeling spending of public money must be placed under strict oversight with an option to suspend or even cancel sources of revenue.

    These taxes also spread the burden all around without granting benefits to Manhattan at the expense of the outer boroughs. Manhattan would not be symbolically established as a “gated community" receiving all of the benefits while the outer boroughs bear all of the burdens: overcrowded trains, parking problems, more congestion, more pollution, etc.

    While there are serious time constraints on the MTA’s operating budget, there is much more time for the capital budget which is due in October. Thus, the NYS Legislature should pass the payroll tax to stop the service cuts and radical fare increases now but take the proper time to pass the best solution to the capital budget shortfall.

    The Bronx