Home MTA Politics To fund student travel, Espada proposes East River Bridge tolls

To fund student travel, Espada proposes East River Bridge tolls

by Benjamin Kabak

In a shocking move last night, Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada — and long-time foe of most things MTA — announced a plan to toll the East River Bridges in order to prevent the MTA’s service cuts. Last year, Espada was the leader of the Fare-Hike Four, a group dedicated to avoiding sensible MTA funding mechanisms at any cost, but with Student MetroCards on the chopping block, Espada has announced his support for the tolling plan.

“The MTA’s financial problems have not dissipated and it is evident that new funding is needed to prevent service cuts,” he said in a townhall meeting from the floor of the State Senate. “Last year I opposed a toll on the ‘free’ bridges because the revenue was destined for a general fund. I am proposing that revenue generated by a toll on the East River bridges be earmarked specifically for the restoration of the free student MetroCard program and other subway and bus services that are being targeted with cuts or elimination. The MTA must agree to the specific use of this revenue, or all bets are off.”

As for the details, Espada’s proposal is a start but doesn’t go as far as we had hoped last year. He has proposed a $2.00 toll on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro bridges, and he believes this toll would generate $525 million in annual revenue, enough to fund Student MetroCards and potentially allow the MTA to expand service. This toll will not discourage drivers from taking unnecessary trips, and the Harlem River bridges — those that impact Espada’s constituents — are not included in this plan.

Streetsblog, however, questions Espada’s math. They believe the net gain would be approximately $240 million, just enough to fund Student MetroCards and avert the majority of city-based bus and subway cuts. After the state’s payroll tax calculation error, I tend to believe Streetsblog’s math over the numbers coming from Espada. Still, the money will help, but whether the Assembly and Senate will approve such a plan this time around remains to be seen.

Espada, meanwhile, doesn’t believe the MTA would balk at receiving this money even if it is earmarked for student travel. After all, MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder has repeatedly stressed his desire to maintain free student transit. “I am fully confident,” Espada said, “that Walder would agree to this if it means preventing cuts to vital services and the free student MetroCard program. I am encouraged by Mr. Walder’s comprehensive, long-term vision for the MTA, but he needs help now to get the agency back on track.”

Help, it seems, is going to come from the unlikeliest of unlikely allies.

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Kai B March 22, 2010 - 12:01 pm

I guess the “discouraging drivers to take unnecessary trips” will increase subway and bus usage, which would also slightly increase revenue.

Benjamin Kabak March 22, 2010 - 12:02 pm

It would, but a $2 toll won’t deter too many drivers to make much of a difference in regards to congestion. The toll would probably have to be $4 each way to accomplish this goal. Still, I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Marc Shepherd March 22, 2010 - 12:27 pm

I believe that the vast majority of the drivers on the East River bridges have no realistic mass-transit option. Either they are carrying cargo that you can’t take on a bus/subway, or they are traveling to/from a place with little or no nearby transit.

You could raise the toll to $10, and you wouldn’t shift significant numbers to transit.

Jehiah March 22, 2010 - 1:04 pm

By ‘no realistic mass-transit option’ i’m sure you are not referring to the Queensboro Bridge which has 3 subway tunnels practically right under it, and the other east river bridges which cary subways over them as well as cars.

You might be trying to point out that some people don’t have a complete trip they can make with mass transit, however that doesn’t change the fact that mass transit is still a better choice for the segment of most trips leading into NYC. Everyone has to make a connecting segment to mass transit somewhere; either by foot, bike or car.

Marc Shepherd March 22, 2010 - 2:55 pm

If you are going to argue that transit is a realistic alternative to driving, you need to consider the start and end points of the trip, not just bridge along the way that has a parallel subway line.

I mean, if you’ve driven to the Queensboro Bridge because you don’t have transit in your area, are you supposed to get out of your car at that point and hop the subway? Is anyone proposing to build new, inexpensive parking lots near the bridge that would accommodate these alleged new transit riders?

Alon Levy March 23, 2010 - 12:20 pm

They polled city commuters who drive into Manhattan back during the congestion pricing debacle. It turned out that 80% of them said they had a realistic mass transit alternative that would slow them down only 15 minutes one-way.

To put things in perspective, Komanoff argues that an extra car on the road slows everyone else down by about 8 hours one-way in the aggregate.

Marc Shepherd March 22, 2010 - 12:13 pm

This is certainly significant, because once the bridges are tolled, it is unlikely that they would ever again be free. It’s also much easier to raise tolls in the future, once they exist, than to impose tolls in the first place.

The Ravitch was much better. It would have imposed tolls on the East River bridges equal to those on the existing MTA bridges and tunnels, and it would have tolled the Harlem River bridges at the same rate as the base subway fare. Still, this is a huge step in the right direction.

SEAN March 22, 2010 - 12:36 pm

Totally agree. This is a first step for tolls on all East River Bridges, with eventually adding tolls on bridges over the Harlem River as well.

I believe the toll should be $5 if not the same as TBTA crossings.

Dan March 22, 2010 - 1:35 pm

Yep, agreed — this is huge for exactly the reason you stated. Gotta get on the slope before it gets slippery.

Donald March 22, 2010 - 12:21 pm

How would the tolling work? Toll booths? EZ-Pass? What about the affect on taxis?

Marc Shepherd March 22, 2010 - 12:30 pm

It would be EZ-Pass. For those who don’t have it, cameras would photograph the license plates and send a bill. Taxi rides today already pass along tolls to the rider, so I assume this would still be the case.

Think twice March 22, 2010 - 9:19 pm

As Marc Shepherd pointed out, it would be high-speed tolling

DMIJohn March 22, 2010 - 12:25 pm

See page 24 for Traffic Mitigation Commission’s estimate of toll revenue. $531 million based on $4 toll on East River Bridges.


Ed March 22, 2010 - 12:54 pm

My big objection to all the “toll the East River bridges” plans have been the toll boths. I can’t see access point to the Brooklyn Bridge where you could put toll booths without causing massive traffic jams. And we already have traffic jams on the Manhattan side of the 59th Street Bridge, toll booths could only make it worse.

I don’t have problem with charging people for driving into Manhattan, and in fact I prefer East River bridges tolls to the convoluted congestion pricing scheme that would have essentially done the same thing, though in a really convoluted way. But the “take a photo of the license plate and send a bill” thing better work. I can see a situation where enough drivers simply decide to ignore the bill that you can’t really enforce this. Or maybe the postal service deteriorates and the bills get lost in the mail. I can also see that happening.

How easy is it to get an EZ pass? Maybe you are not allowed to drive into Manhattan unless you get an EZ pass. Period. Open season for cops to ticket cars found in Manhattan without EZ passes, particularly if they have non NY license plates. Then toll the bridges. If its easy to get an EZ pass, this might work.

Benjamin Kabak March 22, 2010 - 12:56 pm

This point has been made over and over again by advocates of the plan: There will be no toll booths.

The tolls will be collected via high-speed tolling mechanisms that involve either E-ZPass accounts or license plate cameras. This isn’t new technology; it exists the world over and even on some parts of the New Jersey Turnpike. There just won’t be street traffic or congestion due to toll booths because there won’t be any toll booths.

Think twice March 22, 2010 - 9:26 pm

Ben, so long as this link is up, I’d keep it handy:

High-speed Tolling

I have a feeling that you and other transit advocates are going to have to talk the “Phantom Tollbooth” critics off the ledge again and again.

Eric F. March 22, 2010 - 1:02 pm

Can you produce some gudelines for the common people as to which trips are necessary and which are unnecessary?

Benjamin Kabak March 22, 2010 - 1:07 pm

Anyone who chooses to drive because they don’t like taking the train or prefer to be in their car are, in my view, taking unnecessary trips. People who live in transit-accessible areas and work in Manhattan but who drive aren’t contributing much right there and are enjoying free rider benefits due to untolled bridges.

Eric F. March 22, 2010 - 1:11 pm

I had enough body parts jammed into me on the 4 train at 7:30 this morning, that I would have had a very much improved experience if a dozen people on my train car unnecessarily drove in to Manhattan.

“Anyone who chooses to drive because they don’t like taking the train or prefer to be in their car are, in my view, taking unnecessary trips.”

That would be pretty much everyone driving with their family on a Saturday afternoon to visit their friends. In many cases you can replicate the trip with a few train transfers, maybe a bus here and there. But it’s a pain to get around that way, slow and it makes it difficult to carry stuff with you. Which come to think of it probably explains some of your unnecessary car travel.

aestrivex March 22, 2010 - 3:14 pm

note that based on ben’s description, the need to carry large amounts of cargo is a condition not addressed by unnecessary driving, and not necessarily something he would consider as unnecessary for this reason.

Alon Levy March 22, 2010 - 3:15 pm

On the contrary, if the majority of train riders had driven instead, the train would probably have been cut to unusably low ridership levels, forcing you into driving through LA-style gridlock.

BrooklynBus March 22, 2010 - 6:24 pm

The problem I have with East River tolls is that you are not only punishing those who work in the CBD, but also those using the FDR going to Upper Manhattan to places like Columbia Presbyterian for treatment or to visit a loved one, or to the Bronx, Westchester, or further north. The trip may be half as long by car as it is by mass transit. They are not even increasing air pollution in the CBD if the FDR is moving well. Would they be causing any less pollution if they were forced onto the perpetually congested BQE? And what about people making a one-time trip that involves moving stuff that can’t be taken into the subway? Is that also an unecessary trip?

Congestion pricing is fairer than East River Bridge tolls, but I’m not in favor of one that either.

And how do we know that if the money went to retain student passes, that Albany wouldn’t further reduce subsidies so that there still would not be enough money to keep the passes, and now we are stuck with the tolls.

Alon Levy March 23, 2010 - 12:22 pm

Your one-time trip moving stuff would actually be more pleasant if there were tolls, because of the reduced congestion. The extra cost would be a few dollars, which is a rounding error compared to the security deposit and broker fee you’d have to pay for the new apartment.

Andrew March 23, 2010 - 11:05 pm

Tolls aren’t punishment. It costs something to maintain a bridge, you know.

Boris March 22, 2010 - 1:03 pm

Funny how Espada keeps the same MTA-bashing tone even when trying to help it, lest anyone thinks he actually supports mass transit. “The MTA must agree to the specific use of this revenue, or all bets are off.” I think the MTA will have no problem agreeing that new toll revenue will be used exclusively for the MTA and not to fund other transit agencies upstate, as was done recently with some “dedicated” tax money.

Scott E March 22, 2010 - 1:47 pm

I agree with Boris completely. Espada still doesn’t get it, and he’s still saddling the MTA with the burden of providing free student transportation. In 20 years, when the cost of student transportation doubles, will the MTA be able to adjust these tolls accordingly?

He should be saying that the revenue goes to the CITY, and the CITY, in turn, must pay for 100% of student transportation. At whatever cost it may be.

Benjamin Kabak March 22, 2010 - 1:49 pm

No way. I’m not giving the city the ability to decide not to give this money to the MTA. Basically, what happens now is that the city and state write checks to the MTA for student transit, and if this money is the state’s way of doing that, then so be it.

Anyway, your plan will leave the city the option to take away any extra money while Espada says all money would be “earmarked specifically for the restoration of the free student MetroCard program and other subway and bus services that are being targeted with cuts or elimination.” (Emphasis mine.) The MTA could certainly use any and all money on which it get it hands.

Scott E March 22, 2010 - 2:48 pm

Understood, and involving the city concerned me a bit, too. But it’s their responsibility to fully fund student transit. Espada is still putting the burden of funding student transit on the MTA, and is blurring the line between that responsibility and the overall responsibility of the MTA to provide service. If these $2 bridge tolls don’t provide enough funding to cover student transit AND to restore the cuts, indefinitely, then what? (Interesting how it doesn’t restore railroad service cuts).

Yes, getting more money is nice, but let’s not forget one thing that got us in this mess in the first place. The cost of student transportation went up, and the city and state didn’t increase their contributions accordingly. This “solution” is shortsighted, and unless the MTA takes full control over those bridges, and the tolls, the same problem is bound to occur.

bob March 22, 2010 - 6:17 pm

How does he propose to write the legislation? This being a permanent income source I can see dedicated funding to make up for student passes. But with regard to the cuts, does that mean the V train has dedicated funds and the F doesn’t? Certain bus routes have funding and others (not targeted since they carry MORE passengers) don’t? And those restrictions are forever?

Opposition from Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island will kill this anyway. But it makes a nice sound bite.

Skip Skipson March 22, 2010 - 1:06 pm

I wish Mr Espada ‘found religion’ when the Ravitch plan came out.

This is a step in the right direction for transit, but given his actions with the whole majority leader debacle; I’m cynical about his motives (Then again why should I be cynical, he just wants to get enough votes to stay in office!).

I’ll take his comments at face value and wait and see what happens next.

Dan March 22, 2010 - 1:39 pm

No reason to be cynical. The facial comments are self-serving enough. He saves the student Metrocard system and reduces if not eliminates the cuts, and his constituents don’t have to pay for it.

Dave March 22, 2010 - 1:47 pm

Ok, So what is the realistic chance this happens? Would they still keep the V train then?

ferryboi March 22, 2010 - 5:50 pm

Next to impossible. The outcry that this caused last time it was brought up (for better or worse) killed the deal. All someone has to do is bring up the fact that drivers coming into Manhattan will have to pay so students wearing $200 sneakers and carrying $300 iPHONES won’t have to pony-up $2.25 to go to their free school.

Aaron March 22, 2010 - 8:42 pm

Aren’t you the one who whines about people “stereotyping” Staten Islanders?


John June 11, 2010 - 7:10 pm

Are you serious? They say that over 66% of the students receiving Student MetroCards qualify for free or reduced price lunches. There are plenty of students who don’t eat at home and get their only meals in school. The few kids wearing expensive sneakers and carrying expennsive iPhones don’t represent all of the students. I’m just an average student, and I don’t wear expensive sneakers or own any iPhone.

Ben March 22, 2010 - 1:48 pm

I’m not sure you shouldn’t be looking this one in the mouth, actually—he proposes this revenue source, which the MTA arguably should have already, to replace the revenue the state isn’t kicking in for student fares? So in other words, establishing the precedent that the student fares are to be bankrolled by a dedicated MTA revenue source, rather than from State general-purpose/education funds? Thanks, Senator, that’s amazingly generous of you…

Scott E March 23, 2010 - 8:28 am

“establishing the precedent that the student fares are to be bankrolled by a dedicated MTA revenue source, rather than from State general-purpose/education funds? Thanks, Senator, that’s amazingly generous of you”

I brought up the same point in a comment above. I’m not sure if Espada’s trying to pull a fast one on us, or if he’s just oblivious to the fact that funding student transport is not the MTA’s responsibility.

Building 11 March 22, 2010 - 4:07 pm

If I’m the MTA, I’d say “pass the legislation first, then we’ll talk.” Beyond that, it’ interesting that he doesn’t mention the Harlem River bridges.

Think twice March 22, 2010 - 9:36 pm

Opportunist. The definition of.

IMO, only a plan that divides and conquers our obtuse, oblique politicians in this byzantine state will make congestion pricing a reality.

Al D March 23, 2010 - 9:53 am

Say NO to bridge tolls. It unfairly discriminates against outer borough residents and forces them to pay for Albany’s corrupt and inefficient behaviour. Instead, fund student MetroCards the way they always have been, through the existing vehicles. A tax is a tax is a tax…

Andrew March 23, 2010 - 11:09 pm

Allowing drivers to drive around the city for free unfairly discriminates against residents of all five boroughs who don’t own cars or don’t make heavy use of them.

Al D March 24, 2010 - 10:59 am

We do not drive around the city gratis. We pay for gas, oh there’s a tax on gas. We pay for insurance, oh that’s required by the state, we pay for our registration, oh that’s another tax, we pay for vehicle inspection, that’s another tax, we pay to maintain our vehicles, oh and there’s the city and state sales tax on that, and we pay for parking often times, oh hey that’s taxed too (private parking) or Muni-meter (another tax). So you see, we cannot drive around gratis. We pay, and we pay a whole heck of a lot more than the $2.25 tax to take a train. Oh sorry the average real fare is around $1.40 or something…

Andrew March 26, 2010 - 6:39 pm

Cry me a river. Especially in a city where space is such a hot commodity, motorists pay a fraction of the costs they ensue.

The city’s bridges cost a lot to maintain. Why should someone who doesn’t use them, and might not even own a car at all (e.g., over half of NYC households), pitch in for their maintenance?

John June 11, 2010 - 7:16 pm

That is the point, though. There are so many things that you have to pay, that a $2 or $2.25 toll should be the least of your worries. There are garages that charge $20 per hour. If you park the car for 2 hours, that is $40. $2 is about 5% of that. Add on gas and wear-and-tear and that $2 or $2.25 toll will seem like nothing.

Al D March 23, 2010 - 9:56 am

I have a son, and it’s miles easier to put him in his car seat (we call it his throne) and drive over the bridge to his appointments and family. This will only take away his money. To those family people here, we all know how much more difficult transit is with a toddler in tow. Transit is NOT for families with young children. My wife has to lug our son up and down stairs in his stroller. Were it not for the occassional kindness of gentlemen to help out when I am not around!

Andrew March 23, 2010 - 11:10 pm

So drive. Did someone tell you you can’t drive anymore?

I have to pay a toll (more commonly known as a far) whenever I ride the subway, regardless of where I’m going. Why shouldn’t you pay a toll when you drive your car across the East River?

Al D March 24, 2010 - 11:00 am

I do pay, please see reply above.

Al D March 23, 2010 - 10:03 am

Sorry, but this 1 is near and dear to my heart. These clowns in Albany need to be voted out, every last 1 of ’em. I don’t even care what the challenger’s position is, this current crew sucks! Even Ed Koch knows!

john b March 23, 2010 - 12:48 pm

i really wish you could type in crayon on these boards sometimes.

Al D March 24, 2010 - 11:00 am


FAQs on the impending MTA Board vote :: Second Ave. Sagas March 23, 2010 - 12:28 pm

[…] the weekend, Pedro Espada, part of the Four Hike Four, surprised everyone by announcing his support for East River Bridge tolls. The revenue would be dedicated to the MTA, and all money from tolls must be, in the words of the […]

A late-June Student MetroCard showdown looms :: Second Ave. Sagas May 24, 2010 - 1:28 pm

[…] of potential rescue plans. In March, Pedro Espada, the state senate majority leader, proposed a modest bridge toll with revenues earmarked for student travel, and new council transportation committee chair James Vacca has vaguely pledged to do […]

MTA ‘optimistic’ Student MetroCards will be saved :: Second Ave. Sagas June 11, 2010 - 12:53 am

[…] line of thought, no one could say from where the money will flow. In March, Pedro Espada proposed bridge tolls to fund student rides, but that plan hasn’t garnered much attention since […]


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