Home Congestion Fee East River bridge tolls could fund MTA capital program

East River bridge tolls could fund MTA capital program

by Benjamin Kabak

These bridges won’t be free for much longer if DOT has its way. (Photo by flickr user SheepGuardingLama)

While those of us in the pro-congestion pricing camp were busy slamming Sheldon Silver and mourning the death of Mayor Bloomberg’s radical and potentially revolutionary congestion pricing plan, the New York City Department of Transportation had other plans.

Speaking on Friday at the Regional Plan Association’s annual conference, DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan let slip that congestion pricing in name may be dead, but the ideas and certain proposals are far from dead. “I really don’t think that we should be in the business right now of eulogizing congestion pricing. The way I prefer to think about it,” she said, “is that perhaps we are in little more of a hibernation mode.”

DOT, you see, is trying to return to an idea dropped during the build-up to congestion pricing: tolls over the East River bridges. Furthermore, these tolls could potentially be used to fund the MTA’s capital campaign and its currently-projected multi-billion-dollar funding gap. Pete Donohue from the Daily News has more:

“At the end of the day, the failure on congestion pricing that occurred last month was just a setback,” said a fellow panelist, former Deputy Mayor Marc Shaw. “I think it will be reconsidered in the near future.”

He predicted congestion pricing would come back in a somewhat different and “purer” form: tolls at the East River bridges and across 60th St.

Shaw chaired a commission that recommended charging $8 to drive below 60th St. It largely would have affected drivers who do not currently pay to enter lower Manhattan because they use free East River bridges. The goals included reducing traffic and generating funds to improve the mass transit system.

Furthermore, Donohue notes, the new MTA commission on funding led by former MTA head Richard Ravitch will consider both the East River tolls and congestion pricing plans as sources of revenue for the beleaguered transportation authority.

I am all in favor of tolling the East River bridges. Right now, four bridges — Brooklyn, Manahttan, Williamsburg, Queensboro — feed into Manhattan south of 60th street for free. Users of these bridges have myriad public transportation options, and yet these drivers still get a free ride into and out of the city. If tolling these bridges would provide the MTA with funds while reducing congestion and automobile use, DOT should make it happen. The city and its public transit advocates could use a big win, and it’s comforting to see DOT keeping this hope alive.

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Peter April 22, 2008 - 8:34 am

It’s about time. Still, to keep the American Automobile Association from deploying a battalion of attorneys to block imposition of tolls on E. River bridges because they infringe upon car drivers’ inalienable rights, there should a l w a y s be one lane without a toll on every bridge. If you don’t want to pay a few bucks to get to Manhattan at 8:30 in the morning, you can wait 45 minutes. Perhaps graduated tolls, based on the density & flow of traffic, could be imposed. Instead of complicated surveillance equipment that was to be used for imposing the “Congestion Pricing” (and would have inevitably ended up being another bloated bureaucratic Big Brotherish fiefdom, awash in Other People’s Money), such digital technology would be deployed to perform real-time “Yield Management” of tolls on the bridges, raising prices at Rush Hour to betteer direct and control traffic:

Digital Sign on The Major Deegan in 2012: “Madison Ave Bridge 2 Lanes $4.00, 1 Lane $5.00 ’til 8:15 – Free Lane 20 Min – – – 3rd Ave Bridge 2 Lanes $5.00 til 8:30 – Free Lane, 25 min – – – 145th St Bridge 3 Lanes $5.00 til 8:30 – Free Lane 25 Min ……….”

Katherine April 22, 2008 - 10:00 am

I’m not a fan of tolling those bridges because, for the most part, those who use it are not using it as commuter bridges everyday. Their people heading into the city for a special occasion, people driving to work to bring something heavy home, etc. They are not outer borough residents looking to evade a toll to get into the city for work everyday. The fact of the matter is I can’t see justifying a tax that will directly be on those who are already not a big part of the problem (i.e. not every single day commuters and parkers) when in reality it will never actually go towards helping anyone in the end. I was a much bigger fan of congestion pricing as a whole when it was promising to help the MTA make the subways run more than, you know, 12 hours a day–even when it was a pipe dream to think the MTA would improve service if there was an influx of money.

MAA April 22, 2008 - 11:15 am

Katherine, I too liked congestion pricing better because it focused on preventing everyday commuters, as opposed to everyone who drives into Manhattan at anytime of day, but I think that there are a lot of people who use the free East River bridges to commute everyday. Check out these numbers from DOT on average crossings – http://www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/d.....idge.shtml.
Half a million vehicles on one day in 2004 is a lot. Even if you omit half of that because of one way tolls, and then take some off of that for buses and other exempted vehicles, you’re still looking at 200,000. I know of two people who live in LIC/Astoria and commute daily to work in the Bronx. They take the 59th because it is free even though they are equi-distant between the 59th Street and the Triborough and it is more in their direction to take the Triborough. As for your statement about it not helping in the end, I am assuming that DOT would put the money towards mass-transit projects.

Daniel Reyes July 8, 2010 - 4:04 pm

MAA and Peter. There is no Free alternative route to get into Queens from The Bronx. Truth is, not many people have the funds to continuously pay and cross a bridge. Maybe businesses do, but those businesses usually invest in an EZ-Pass and pay their tolls. Most people taking these bridges cannot afford the daily cost of 5.50 a day. Mid you that once these bridges are decided to be tolled, the price will just increase every single time that the DOT or the MTA need funds for another project. The backlash might be so bad that outer-borough businesses and individuals will lose significant profit. The TLC’s “Yellow Cabs” have a lot of bases in the Queens and The Bronx.

If you are all mad at congestion, you should blame the person who decided to make manhattan the epicenter of New York City. If some of it were spread-out, we wouldnt have this issue.

Benjamin Kabak July 8, 2010 - 4:08 pm

The people who can’t afford to pay don’t own cars. That’s the simple truth about auto ownership in New York City.

JP April 22, 2008 - 11:50 am

Albany will never agree to this and they have to approve it. It’s a political non-starter. CP was a much better and fairer plan. The only way it gets done is if you give back something to the outer borough drivers like free bridges outside of the Manhattan CBD like what Sam Schwartz is pushing.

Marc Shepherd April 22, 2008 - 1:25 pm

JP has a valid point. The same people in Albany who nixed congestion pricing are the ones who need to approve tolling the East River bridges.

I’m not a fan of tolling those bridges because, for the most part, those who use it are not using it as commuter bridges everyday. Their people heading into the city for a special occasion, people driving to work to bring something heavy home, etc.

That doesn’t sound correct. Could the traffic on these four bridges be made up totally, or even mainly, of “special occasion” drivers and “people bringing something heavy home”? I think not. The fact is, some people do drive into Manhattan daily. Given the choice, they use the toll-free route.

TM April 22, 2008 - 1:39 pm

On any given day, what’s the difference if a car crossing the Queensboro Bridge belongs to a commuter or an “occasional user”? They’re both contributing to the problem equally.

Alfred Beech April 22, 2008 - 7:17 pm

Color me näive, but I’m missing something about New York politics. Why does Albany have to approve changes to traffic within the city of New York? Aren’t these city streets?

JP April 22, 2008 - 8:13 pm

The State Constitution doesn’t allow the city to create new fees and taxes with out it passing the legislature. All the city can do is pass a home rule message requesting that the legislature does x.

Gary April 22, 2008 - 8:53 pm

JP, are you sure about that? I understand that once upon a time there were bridge tolls on the East River . . . is that not so? And if there were, who revoked them, the city or the state?

And who holds title to the East River bridges? If the City owns them and gives them to the MTA, could the MTA then add tolls at will?

I’m asking these questions because I don’t necessarily know the answers, but if I learned one thing from The Power Broker, it’s that there are surprising ways of getting things done in New York.

Lastly, I find it all pretty ironic. My favored plan when the CP commission was holding hearings was tolling the Harlem and East River crossings. And here we are.

PETER – Anything which creates massive queues of cars in Brooklyn is a non-starter . . . there is no place to put the cars. It has to be a booth-less system or it won’t work.

Katherine, I can assure you that there are plenty of people that commute in using the bridges . . . and that many of them go out of there way to use the bridges and avoid the tunnels, which they have to pay for. I live in a neighborhood that is impacted by that choice.

Alon Levy April 22, 2008 - 9:15 pm

How does the Battery Tunnel work?

Gary April 22, 2008 - 9:49 pm

It runs on batteries? (rimshot)

There is a toll booth that charges both ways, and it’s stationed on the Brooklyn side. I live several blocks from it. The problem is, where would you put them for the bridges?

JP April 23, 2008 - 8:07 am

The Battery Tunnel uses the Gowanus Expressway as its queue.

I’m pretty sure about that Gary, and the lawyers are too because if the city tried to do it they’d sue.

Marc Shepherd April 23, 2008 - 9:21 am

The four city-owned bridges (Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg & Queensboro) have never been tolled. There is nowhere for cars to queue to pay tolls, because the possibility wasn’t anticipated when these bridges were built. I suspect they’d use the same mechanism that would have been used for congestion pricing, based on cameras, computers and EZPass. Building physical toll booths would most likely be a non-starter.

There is no way to get around the requirement for state legislature approval. Robert Moses needed to go through the legislature, too; he was just a lot more adept at it than anyone around today, especially Mayor Bloomberg.

JP April 23, 2008 - 3:14 pm

And who holds title to the East River bridges? If the City owns them and gives them to the MTA, could the MTA then add tolls at will?

Doing this requires state approval also, but would make sense. What should be done is a swap. The Queensborough, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Billysburgh to the MTA and the non-CBD crossings to the city. Then make the toll something like $16 on the CBD crossings during peak times. I think this is the fairest system for everyone.

Cap'n Transit April 23, 2008 - 11:37 pm

Marc, please don’t spread disinformation. The East River Bridges were all tolled when they were first constructed. I don’t know where the toll booths were, but they were there. With the small number of cars that existed back then, they didn’t need very many booths.

The idea was to keep the tolls until the bonds were paid off, but Mayor Gaynor removed them in 1911 in the first bridge pandering. Later, Bob Moses had the idea of taking out new bonds before the old ones were paid off, using them to pay for new construction projects and keeping the bridge construction authority in place indefinitely. That’s why the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority is still in existence, as a part of the MTA.

Alon Levy April 24, 2008 - 3:20 am

JP: your proposal will substantially increase traffic in East Harlem and Washington Heights. Washington Heights might absorb the increase, but East Harlem has one of the highest asthma incidences in the country, in large part because of all the through traffic.

A better proposal would be to toll all the bridges across East and Harlem Rivers, which would compensate for the added traffic from Triboro Bridge with reduced traffic from the Bronx and Upstate.

Lisa December 4, 2008 - 12:47 pm

Has anyone read the following… I think that in this recession the bridges should remain toll-free… Why don’t we crack down with quality of life tickets for littering & urinating in public?:

How East River Bridges Stayed Toll-Free Subtitle
New York Times Blog | November 11, 2008

By Sewell Chan

On numerous occasions, politicians have tried to reinstitute tolls on the four bridges — the Brooklyn (completed in 1883), Williamsburg (completed in 1903) and Manhattan and Queensboro (both completed in 1909). After all, the Brooklyn Bridge charged horse-drawn carriages a toll from the time it opened. But by the Depression, the tolls were a thing of the past.


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