New York City

Move NY plan to charge tolls on East River bridges gets airing in Boerum Hill

February 20, 2015 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Alex Matthiessen, campaign director for Move NY, laid out the group’s traffic proposal Thursday night. Photo by Mary Frost

Details of a plan to deal with New York City’s traffic congestion and help fund infrastructure repairs and mass transit were discussed at a town hall meeting at the YWCA in Boerum Hill Thursday night.

Despite the bitter cold, dozens of community representatives attended to hear “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, a former NYC traffic commissioner, and Alex Matthiessen, campaign director for Move NY, lay out the proposal.

The Move NY plan brings back the idea of tolls on the East River bridges connecting Brooklyn to Manhattan, but would lower tolls on the major outlying bridges – in what organizers call a “toll swap.”

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Some Specifics:

* Drivers on the East River Bridges would pay (electronically, meaning no toll booths) $5.54 with E-ZPass, or $8 without. Vehicles without E-ZPass will be billed via optical license-plate cameras.

* Drivers on the MTA’s major outlying bridges — the Triborough, Whitestone, Throgs Neck and Verrazano Narrows — would see tolls drop by $2.50 each way. Tolls on other bridges, such as the Cross Bay, Marine Parkway and Henry Hudson, would drop by $1 in each direction.

* Drivers to and from Manhattan south of 60th Street (the Central Business District) would also be tolled.

* Trucks and other commercial vehicles crossing into the Manhattan Central Business District would only pay the toll once per day.

* Yellow and green taxi trips would have an added surcharge, roughly $1.40 for a three-mile trip.

* The MTA and taxis would be authorized to establish a “time of day” or “peak/off-peak” rate schedule, with higher rates during weekday rush hours.

* Manhattan residents’ exemption from the tax on monthly parking fees would be eliminated.

* A new financing authority would collect tolls and fees and disburse them to city and state agencies – and work to keep the funds out of Albany’s hands. (See https://movenewyork.wordpress.com for full details.)

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Schwartz and Matthiessen said the plan would be fairer than a previous congestion pricing plan proposed by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, because it would help the outer boroughs.

It would also eliminate street-clogging “toll shopping,” where drivers travel out of their way to avoid paying tolls, rather than taking the shortest route.

 “New York City faces a number of very serious transportation-related problems,” Matthiessen, told the Brooklyn Eagle. “One, we have a vastly underfunded mass transit system and underfunded roads and bridges. We’re not keeping up with our maintenance of roads and bridges, and transit, and we’re falling behind other cities.

“Secondly, we’ve got a very serious traffic problem in the city,” Matthiessen said. “It’s probably second only to Los Angeles.

“And third, we’ve got a very inequitable tolling system; it’s gotten very out of whack. We have a lot of drivers in the city and around the region who are paying these exorbitant tolls, soon to be $16 dollars round trip in the outer parts of the city. And in the meantime, there are other drivers who have never been asked to pay anything more because they pay zero,” he said.

Move NY would not decide what to do with the funds raised; the MTA and other agencies would do that. Move NY suggests, however, that the money could be used to expand bus and ferry service, invest in subway signal upgrades, implement high-tech fare payment methods, and rehab stations.

The finances

Move NY says the plan would ease traffic and generate $1.5 billion in net annual revenue. If bonded, that $1.5 billion could produce $15 billion. Three-quarters of the revenue would go to transit, with one quarter dedicated to roads and bridges.

The 2015-2019 MTA Capital Plan is currently only half-funded, Assemblymember Jim Brennan (Park Slope, Kensington) said. Out of its $32 billion budget, the MTA “has identified $17 billion in sources of funding. There’s a $15 billion shortfall.”

If the MTA were to borrow the $15 billion needed, tolls and fares would increase by 15 percent on top of the biannual 4 percent increases already scheduled.

Brennan said that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had vetoed the MTA’s 2015 – 2019 plan, submitted in October 2014.

“He called it ‘bloated,’” Brennan said. “That’s inappropriate language to use.”

In January, the governor proposed an extra $1 billion for the MTA, leaving a $14 billion shortfall. “This is half of what’s required for funding transit, stations, bridges and tunnels and tracks. There is a crisis,” Brennan said. “It’s very unfortunate the governor is not showing any leadership.”

Gov. Cuomo told reporters at an unrelated event in Brooklyn on Friday that he doubted that Move NY supporters would be able to get a congestion pricing plan passed, the New York Observer reported.

Matthiessen said that “maintenance of effect” provisions written into the proposed financing authority, which would distribute the revenue from tolls and fees, would not be “vulnerable to a raid by Albany.”

Q & A

Audience members raised a number of questions. One person asked what happens to traffic congestion when the decrepit BQE cantilever ringing Brooklyn Heights finally closes for long-needed repairs.

Schwartz said that while the plan would reduce traffic a bit on the BQE, “We don’t solve the BQE cantilever.  The state has no money; it’s a real worry for your community. If I had to say where to put the first dollars, I would say the BQE cantilever. If we lose the BQE, there will be an enormous problem in the community and city.”

Another asked how Move NY would sell the plan in Brooklyn and Queens.

Schwartz admitted there was “a crescent of opposition” to the original Bloomberg plan in outer Queens and Staten Island. Now, however, “[Queens Councilmember] Mark Weprin is a switcher. ‘Finally someone included us in the dialog,’ Schwartz quoted Weprin as saying..

Community feedback

Community Board 2’s District Manager Robert Perris told the Brooklyn Eagle that the plan was “very attractive to Downtown residents and businesses.”

One of the failures of Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan was “there were winners and losers,” he said. “And so, Sam and others have worked really hard to make sure this is a win-win for all modal users and all geographies.”

Still, Perris said, “As improved as this is over Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan, it is still a huge legislative lift to get this accomplished.”

Perris had some questions about a Move NY idea to run both freight and passenger rail in the Cross Harbor Rail Tunnel’s Long Island Railroad cut. “Are we going to rob Peter to pay Paul?”

Although the plan seems rather detailed, Perris said, “It’s actually schematic. And we need to get this passed, and then work out the details.”

“I like the overall approach of looking at all the five boroughs,” Doreen Gallo, executive director of the DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance said.

She had a number of doubts, however.

“I think there’s a lot of red flags about the money sourcing, the funding. What is this other authority that’s going to be in charge of the money? Look at Brooklyn Bridge Park and the public authority; we’ve given away the public land.”

She also felt that people wouldn’t go for tolls on the East River bridges.

Assemblyperson Jo Anne Simon (AD-52) called the plan “impressive.”

“A master plan for all five boroughs, it addresses health and safety concerns, reduces costs, raises revenue, improves mass transit options for all New Yorkers while repairing and maintaining our infrastructure,” she said in a statement.

Article updated Feb. 23 with statement from Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon.