Archive for MTA Bridges and Tunnels

Throughout the debates surrounding both congestion pricing and East River bridge tolls, one spurious argument set forth by opponents of the plans considered the impact toll devices would have on traffic. Installing tollbooths on the East River bridges would create traffic jams on local streets in Brooklyn and Manhattan as drivers slowed to pay the toll, they said.

Now, this argument was clearly a flawed one at the time because new tollbooths simply do not have cash collectors or levered arms that raise upon receipt of the toll. Rather, new tollbooths rely on high-speed E-ZPass readers and license plate camera technology to capture revenue. New Yorkers aren’t familiar with this idea because the technology hasn’t been implemented within the five boroughs, but we need to look no further than the New Jersey Turnpike to see high-speed tolling in action.

Recently, though, the MTA announced that cashless tolls will be coming to New York. As part of a pilot program that may see the technology in use on every Bridges & Tunnels crossing, the MTA is beginning to ready the Henry Hudson Bridge for cashless tolling. As part of the plan, the authority is cutting the southbound bridge from four lanes to three and installing camera equipement, computer software and overhead gantries that allow for gateless tolling.

The gateless tolling, says the MTA, will begin late this year or early next, and according to Tom Namako of The Post, by 2012, the entire bridge will be gateless. “We can move 600 to 800 vehicles an hour with gates,” James Ferrara, head of MTA Bridges and Tunnels said. “This is not high-speed tolling.”

Namako fills in some details:

The speed limit at the new, gateless, E-ZPass lanes will likely be set at 15 mph, officials said. Ferrara said one of the goals of the pilot project will be to analyze the rate of traffic without the gates. “Presumably, we will move traffic faster without [them],” he said.

Then, by 2012, all of the toll-gate arms will be gone, and the bridge will go totally cashless. The lanes will either be E-ZPass or set up for video tolling. Video tolling means that drivers will be billed for the toll based on their license-plate information, which will be taken from video footage at the crossing. The move will allow drivers to pass though the toll without stopping — a speedier system currently used in Dallas, Denver and Sydney, Australia, Ferrara said.

It also will save money by eliminating the salaries of toll-booth clerks and costs associated with rehabbing and repairing aging toll plazas, officials said Still, the agency said no jobs would be lost during the pilot program. If successful, the test project — expected to cost between $10 million and $16 million — will spread to all of the MTA’s crossings, the agency said.

To many, this might seem like a minor move and one the MTA should have taken years ago. Cashless tolling, after all, can save on personnel costs and speeds up traffic as well. But for those who still harbor dreams of East River bridge tolls, the first cashless, gate-less operation in New York City is a small beacon of hope. If this pilot is successful, if traffic picks up across the Spuyten Duyvil, if New York’s drivers see how gateless tolling works, those who oppose tolling on these spurious grounds will see their argument dissolve right before their eyes.

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While calls to toll the East River crossings have stalled in New York State, the MTA may have hit upon a partial solution to some forms of congestion in its latest fare hike proposal. As WNYC’s Matthew Schuerman noted late last week, the authority has issued two plans for its bridges and tunnels: One would see rates increase evenly across the board while another would penalize non-E-ZPass users more than it would those with the electronic payment tags.

The options — as the MTA presents them here — are simple. If rates are raised evenly across the board, tolls will increase from anywhere from 25¢ to 50¢ with the one-way toll across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge going up by $1. The E-ZPass rates would increase by approximately 10 percent across the board.

Another plan, though, earning less play on the MTA’s website is summarized thusly: “If tolls were raised only for Cash and non-NYS E-ZPass customers, this would result in a $7.00 toll at Major Crossings ($14 at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge), $4.50 at the Henry Hudson Bridge and $4.00 at Minor Crossings.”

Scheruman spoke with MTA officials about the rationale behind this plan. He reports:

The new idea, according to MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz, is meant to encourage people to use E-ZPass, cutting down on congestion at toll plazas and the pollution that comes with it. The proposal means that E-ZPass users from elsewhere on the Atlantic seaboard who occasionally pass through New York would end up paying 53 percent more. They currently qualify for the $4.57 E-ZPass rate.

AAA New Jersey opposes any sort of variable tolling, according to spokesman Stephen Rajczyk. “It shouldn’t matter if you are an out-of-state driver or an E-Z Pass driver,” he said. “You could say the people who use it all the time maybe should be paying more for it because they are using it all the time.”

The MTA says that you don’t have to be a resident of New York State to get a New York State E-ZPass—you simply have to apply for a tag from the New York State E-ZPass Service Center. And in fact, drivers who use tags from the Port Authority would qualify for the discount, according to MTA Bridges and Tunnels spokeswoman Joyce Mulvaney. About 75 percent of drivers who use MTA’s bridges and tunnels use E-ZPass; 70 percent use New York State tags.

This variable-rate plan is a sure sign of economic protectionism by the MTA. First, they would be foisting off more of the costs on out-of-state users who don’t pay taxes to New York State (and thus, aren’t contributing to the MTA’s coffers through the state treasury). With this variable-rate plan, drivers would either have to pay to purchase a New York State E-ZPass tag with a $25 prepayment charge or be willing to fork over more dollars for tolls.

Second, this plan serves as a de facto congestion-reducing proposal. By raising the rates at tolled roads, the MTA will discourage some — but not all — drivers. Unfortunately, however, the MTA doesn’t have a monopoly on tolled river crossings. They can raise rates at the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, but the Queensboro Bridge and Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges will remain untolled. Thus, any toll increase could have the unwanted result of foisting more traffic onto local roads that lead into the free crossings and contributing to the negative side effects of increased congestion.

The MTA’s various hearings on these toll proposals and their slate of fare increases are set to begin in two weeks from tonight. For a full list of hearing times and locations, visit this site.

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This excellent photo made the rounds yesterday morning a few hours after the new Willis Ave. Bridge made its way north up the East River. Unfortunately, the old 9-to-5 had me away from the computer for the duration, and I couldn’t get this published until today. No matter; it’s still a great photo.

What we see here is the NYC Department of Transportation’s new Willis Ave. Bridge floating underneath the raised span of the RFK — or Triborough — Bridge. This lift began at 9:57 a.m. and concluded 43 minutes later at 10:36 a.m. as traffic was halted across the bridge.

Despite the clearance on the sides, this maneuver wasn’t as easy it looks. The new 2400-ton bridge is 65 feet high, 350 feet long and 77 feet wide, and the barge carrying it was 300 feet wide, just 10 feet shy of the width of the Harlem Lift Span. “We’re old pros at doing these lifts for normal marine traffic but this was like threading
a needle,” Raymond Bush, the general manager of the RFK Bridge, said. “The captain of the barge was being extremely cautious to make sure they didn’t hit the lift span.”

Photo courtesy of MTA Bridges and Tunnels/Raymond Bush.

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Once upon a time, Robert Moses wanted a bridge, and generally, whatever Moses wanted, Moses got. This bridge was to span the New York Harbor from the battery to Brooklyn. It would have drastically changed the way the waterfront looked and would have done away with Battery Park and Castle Clinton.

In New York City, few outside of the man with the power wanted a bridge. Park protestors agitated for a tunnel, and those who wanted to save the historic Castle Clinton called for one as well. Moses did not listen, and it took an act of the president to turn the bridge into the tunnel. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt objected to the way the tunnel would ruin the view of the harbor, her husband spuriously, that the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge would interfere with national safety because the Brooklyn Navy Yard was upstream from the tunnel.

Even though both the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges were seaward from the navy yard as well, the executive order won the day, and today, we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. Today, approximately 44,000 vehicles pass through the 1.7-mile long tunnel on a daily basis. Yet, the origins of the tunnel were arduous.

The NYC Tunnel Authority started construction in October 1940, but the same government that quelled the threat of a bridge ordered a halt to the project in 1942 when the war effort required steel, iron and construction materials. In 1945, Moses’ Triborough Bridge Authority took control of the project, and Moses replaced Ole Signstad with Ralph Smillie as the engineer in charge. Today, the tunnel with its three ventilation plants sees its air recycled every 90 seconds, and what was once a 35-cent toll one way is now $5.50 for those without an E-ZPass.

The tunnel, once featured in Men in Black as the home to the organization tasked with tracking and policing aliens on Earth, isn’t getting a grand celebration for its 60th birthday. The MTA has, however, posted an album of old pictures to commemorate the event. Take a peek:

Cars heading to Manhattan enter the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in the 1950s. (Courtesy of MTA
Bridges and Tunnels Special Archive.)

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Earlier this afternoon, MTA CEO and Chair Jay Walder along with new MTA Bridges & Tunnels President Jim Ferrara spoke to reporters about this agency’s plans for budget reductions and cost savings. It was another in the MTA’s ongoing attempts to close a massive budget hole, and as Bridges & Tunnels is the only agency that turns a profit, I was intrigued to hear about the authority’s plans for it.

First a brief history lesson: When the MTA formed, the city had to find a way to fund transit, and they eyed the huge surpluses at Robert Moses’ Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority as a key source of revenue. So as part of a move to depose Moses from power and find a solution to the subway’s constant annual budget deficits, Triborough and the New York City Transit Authority were merged under the umbrella of the MTA. Since 1968, the various bridges and tunnels under MTA control have continually turned a profit, and those dollars helped allow the MTA to kee subway and bus fares at levels that made the system accessible to all.

With that in mind, the MTA doesn’t need to have the Bridges & Tunnels division save money. It is still, after all, running at a surplus. But by asking the departments to streamline work shifts and operational efficiencies, the trickle-down effect results in more money for the region’s bus and rail networks. So today, Bridges & Tunnels announced approximately $10 million in additional savings for 2010 to bring its total annual savings for this year up to $20 million, and those savings are projected to be $25 million next year.

While some of the savings are rather technical — the eight preventative maintenance shops will be centralized into four shops — one key area involves maintenance work schedules. Currently, Bridges & Tunnels workers are on the clock from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. even though the agency doesn’t perform road work during rush hour. Instead, since most non-emergency repairs are completed at night, the workers earn overtime during the late-night shifts. To combat the spread of overtime, the agency is shifting workers from the daytime to a new 11 p.m.-7 a.m. shift.

With this new shift, the agency will reduce overtime by approximately $4.8 million, and they did so within the contours of their current labor contracts. Workers will have the chance to bid on overnight shifts that carry a 10 percent bump in salary, and daytime workers will, by and large, lose out on the overnight time-and-a-half shifts. It is, said Ferrara and Walder, a more efficient way of doing business.

On the one hand, this is a common-sense moved designed to combat the spread of overtime, and it highlights how Jay Walder is intent on streamlining MTA operations. On the other, it’s a duh-worthy moment that makes me question how the MTA had been doing business beforehand. Still, these savings and efficiencies are better late than never, and even if the dollars are small based on the overall deficit, every little bit is a step forward.

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A toll both ascends

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To publicize the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge toll booth removal project, the MTA sent along the above photo earlier this week. Taken by Operations Superintendent Marc Levy, it shows toll both number 1, unused since 1986, being hoisted away. Crews will begin to remove the next series of booths this weekend, and traffic patterns on the bridge will change accordingly.

As I noted a few weeks ago, the removal is part of a $2.5-million project aimed at eliminating congestion and bottlenecks at the east-bound entrance to the bridge. The toll booths have been idle for nearly 25 years, and although many believe the MTA should restore two-way tolling on the bridge to cut down on traffic across Canal St., the MTA has opted instead to improve bridge traffic by doing away with the booths altogether.

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MTA suits pose for a photo op in front of the long-defunct Brooklyn-bound toll booths on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. (Photo by Patrick Cashin, Metropolitan Transportation Authority)

In 1986, the United States Congress effectively eliminated two-way tolling on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and since then, the toll booths on the Brooklyn-bound side of the bridge have sat empty and in the way.

Yesterday, though, a new day dawned for car-dependent Staten Islanders traveling across the Verrazano as the MTA kicked off a year-long $2.5-million toll-booth removal project that will help eliminate congestion and bottlenecks at the east-bound entrance to the bridge. “The removal of these toll booths is the most significant change in the physical design of the bridge since the lower level was opened to traffic in 1969,” James Ferrara, acting president of Bridges and Tunnels Acting, said.

The history of one-way tolling along the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is an interesting one. In 1986, House representative Guy V. Molinari, a Republican from Staten Island, inserted a provision into the U.S. Department of Transportation’s appropriations bill that would have striped New York of one percent of its federal transportation aid if the toll booths were not eliminated. He did so, he said, because of increased pollution and traffic on the Staten Island side of the bridge. ”The last three or four months have been the worst we have ever seen, with traffic backed up across the island to the Jersey bridges,” Molinari said to The Times in early March 1986.

In exchange for eliminating the Brooklyn-bound tolling, the MTA hiked the cost of a bridge crossing by 100 percent. Instead of a $1.75 charge each way, the one-way toll would cost $3.50. The authority, after all, had to maintain what was then a Verrazano-Narrows Bridge surplus of over $250 million. Today, the one-way cash toll on the bridge is a cool $11.

The toll booths, though, have survived the years. In 1995, the National Highway System Designation Act permanently mandated one-way tolling, and Staten Island residents have long clamored for the destruction of the empy toll booths. Even though cars aren’t charged for crossing, drivers must still slow down to pass through the booths, and bottlenecks form as cars merge onto the bridge.

To address this problem, the MTA is going to eliminate the 11 toll booths on the Staten Island side of the bridge. When that work is complete, the authority will then realign the plaza roadway to allow for higher speeds leading onto the bridge. By 2014, the various on-ramps will be redesigned as well.

With 188,000 crossing in both directions each day, the Verrazano Bridge is the most heavily trafficked of the MTA’s bridges and tunnels. These renovations are a welcome change but do little to address the lack of transit integration from which Staten Island has long suffered. We can only hope that the MTA can be as forward thinking with the North Shore rail line as they are with the bridge. Hopefully, that project won’t take 25 years to get off the planning table as this toll-booth elimination proposal has.

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The MTA released the May numbers for its bridges and tunnels division yesterday, and for the 19th straight month, toll volume has declined. According to the most recent numbers, May 2009 saw 799,890 tolled trips per day, down from a high of 837,537 per day in October 2007. Comparing years, May 2008 saw 200,000 more drivers than did May 2009, and overall toll traffic is down 3.1 percent from 2008 through the first five months of the year.

Bill Henderson, member of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, told The Post’s Tom Namako that the slumping economy and ongoing job losses are the culprits behind the declining toll traffic. I like to think commuters are being more economically and environmentally responsible by heading to the subways while eschewing driving. As the MTA raised the rolls on its bridges and tunnels just nine days ago, it will be interesting to see if those increases cause an even bigger slump in toll volume for July.

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While subway ridership has reached 59-year highs, the poor economy is costing the MTA in toll revenue. According to the latest figures from MTA Bridges and Tunnels, toll revenue declined over $55 million in 2008 as compared to 2007. Average daily traffic at the tolled crossings declined 3.2 percent last year with decreases spiking as the economy worsened. So much for that safety net.

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Lost in the discussion about East River tolls and congestion pricing is the great irony of the MTA. Since the tolled bridges into and out of Manhattan are such cash cows, New York City’s public transit network is kept afloat by the same forces many public transit advocates would like to limit.

The history of MTA Bridges and Tunnels is one of Robert Moses. He ushered through the construction of the Triborough Bridge in the 1933s, and over the years, Moses used his position as head of the Triborough Bridge Authority to consolidate toll revenues while increasing his reach.

By the 1960s, Moses was gone; the city’s bridges and tunnels continued to generate large amounts of surplus cash; and the city’s subways were teetering on the brink of collapse. Hence, the MTA was born, and now the city’s bridges and tunnels subsidize mass transit to the tune of $700-$900 million a year.

But what happens when New Yorkers stop driving? That is the question posed by Pete Donohue in a Daily News article today:

The number of drivers using MTA bridges and tunnels has fallen for 12 straight months, another troubling threat to the agency’s bottom line, officials said Wednesday. “I can’t say I remember anything like that,” MTA Bridges and Tunnels Acting President David Moretti said.

The latest statistics show drivers took 25 million trips over bridges and through tunnels last month, down 1.3 million – or 4.8% – from October 2007.

Much of the 12-month slide can be attributed to high gas prices. But last month’s downturn may be the result of commuters no longer having jobs to go to in Manhattan, officials said. Traffic at the MTA’s four Manhattan crossings was down on average about 7% from September to October, even though gas prices had fallen, Moretti said.

Right now, since the fares were raised in March, revenues aren’t down, but if these trends continue into next year and beyond, the MTA will need to raise even more cash. In that regard, I wonder how a congestion pricing plan would come into play. While a congestion fee with guaranteed revenue heading to the MTA could generate upwards of $400 million a year, would enough cars be discouraged from driving to impact the bottom line for the MTA Bridges and Tunnels division?

As congestion pricing plans would allow for tolls to be deducted from the charge to enter the Central Business District, I doubt the MTA would see a decrease in revenue from the bridges and tunnels. But as the economy walks a dangerous tightrope, it will be interesting to see how one of the authority’s biggest sources of revenue fares. Little do we realize that, as the Bridges and Tunnels go, so go the subways.

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