Home Fare Hikes Combating congestion through variable-rate tolling

Combating congestion through variable-rate tolling

by Benjamin Kabak

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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Al D August 30, 2010 - 5:06 pm

Raise the cash tolls. It is a cash cow. I cannot believe how many cars still use the cash lanes. They are waiting a long time for the privilege of paying more whilst I am going through much faster with my EZ Pass.

The SI VZB discount should be discontinued. After all, doesn’t it ENcourage driving?

The non-NY EZ Pass thing is a scam and should be scrapped.

Lastly, peak period tolling should be implemented as has been done for years now at the PANYNJ crossings.

Bolwerk August 30, 2010 - 7:09 pm

They should abolish the cash tolls. There’s no excuse to not have automatic collection these days.

Aaron August 30, 2010 - 7:16 pm

People from out-of-state? Not everywhere in the country has EZ-Pass… the ETR in Toronto tried to do a pure license-plate collection but to my memory they’ve had not-insignificant problems with that.

Alon Levy August 30, 2010 - 7:58 pm

License plate collection works fine in London and in Israel.

Bolwerk August 30, 2010 - 9:27 pm

I think in Dallas they send a transponder along with the bill.

ferryboi August 30, 2010 - 5:39 pm

“The SI VZB discount should be discontinued. After all, doesn’t it encourage driving?”

Definitely. As soon as the MTA finishes that subway tunnel to Staten Island. Oh wait, there is no subway even planned for Staten Island. Oh well, scrap that idea.

Sharon August 30, 2010 - 10:24 pm

The express buses cost more than running a subway plus SIRR is free to many users

If the Si resident discount was ended you would see a big push to rain in the cray salaries paid to many MTA employees. It is criminal to pay a cleaner $25 an hour plus benefits.

ferryboi August 30, 2010 - 10:43 pm

Besides the bad spelling, your posting makes absolutely no sense.

How exactly does the express bus cost less than running the subway, since the fare is more than twice the cost of a subway ride, and there are a handful of express bus lines as opposed to all the capital costs of running thousands of subway trains? How will ending the SI resident discount translate into “a big push to [rein] in the [crazy] salaries paid to MTA employees?

And yes, the SIR can be free depending on what station one boards the train, though a good 90% of its riders get on and off and have their fares captured at St. George anyway. And since many Islanders use the MetroCard transfer to trains and buses in Manhattan, your “SIR is free” reference makes no sense. Plus the damn train doesn’t go off the Island, so it’s really just a glorified shuttle train.

Finally, what the heck does paying a cleaner $25 an hour have to do with Staten Island? Really, you’re reaching pretty far here.

Bolwerk August 31, 2010 - 9:58 am

The fare is higher on express buses precisely because it costs more to operate them. Or, more specifically, farebox recovery is atrocious because of higher per-passenger operation costs inherent to buses combined with express buses’ poor seat turnover, and that’s true even with the higher fare. Given the flat fare policy, it’s better to have six people use a given seat in a single run than have one person go from one end to the other in a given seat – but that’s not possible on express buses because they make few or no intermediate stops.

I think the ridiculous problem with SI is the completely free ferry service, not the poor fare collection on SIRT. The problems with fare collection at most SIRT stations are design constraints the city and MTA can’t really be blamed for. Presumably the current collection policy has better cost recovery than the old conductor-based collection system.

I don’t really have a problem with subsidized transportation, but many SIers do get a free ride on the ferry – something us horrible, horrible welfare-coddling Brooklyn dwellers sure don’t enjoy unless we walk to Manhattan. It would be fine with me if transfers were honored from subway to ferry to to SIRT (or whatever), but I think it’s fair to expect everyone to at least contribute.

Andrew August 30, 2010 - 11:13 pm

If you want subway service, perhaps you’ve picked the wrong borough to live in. I live near a subway line, but that’s because, when I last moved, I focused my attention on areas near subway lines. I could have gotten a similar place for a lot less elsewhere, but I wanted to be near the subway.

Densities in Staten Island are far too low to support subway service. Even so, the low densities in Staten Island and the distances involved make transit service very expensive to provide. Look at the costs per rider on the express buses:

Shouldn’t a peak-direction commuter from Staten Island to Brooklyn pay at least as much as a reverse-peak-direction commuter from Brooklyn to Staten Island?

Alon Levy August 31, 2010 - 12:05 am

I don’t think it’s Staten Island’s low density that makes subway service there expensive. I’d say it’s the fact that it requires a major water crossing.

Andrew September 2, 2010 - 10:31 pm

The major water crossing makes it expensive to build, but the low density makes a subway line – with high-capacity vehicles on short headways – the wrong tool for the job.

aestrivex August 30, 2010 - 6:37 pm

i like the idea of raising the tolls paid in cash to reduce congestion in areas approaching the toll plazas, but the proposal to raise fares on non-NYS EZ-pass users seems ridiculous. they are not paying new york state tax dollars, true, nor should they be paying extra for the privilege of driving on new york roads, just as new york residents should not pay extra for the privilege of driving on roads in massachusetts or nebraska or anywhere else. more importantly, they are causing no congestion as are the cars that pay in cash.

Bolwerk August 30, 2010 - 7:10 pm

Not causing congestion? By being on the street in a congested area, they are by their very nature a factor in the congestion problem.

aestrivex August 30, 2010 - 7:34 pm

not causing congestion relative to the native EZ-pass users. my point is not that tolls should not be higher for all drivers (i think they should be), but that it seems absurd to encourage use of the electronic fare system to reduce congestion, but then penalize out of state drivers for using it.

Aaron August 30, 2010 - 7:18 pm

I agree, I always thought the idea of the EZ-Pass/FastPass discount was to encourage people to not use the cash lanes, and because of administrative efficiencies in having people throughout the East Coast use automated toll lanes.

Sharon August 30, 2010 - 10:28 pm

Non EZ-Pass customers cause the large majority of traffic at toll plaza’s and cost more as you need to pay toll clerks. Many drivers don’t have EZ-Pass due to not want to be tracked. The first thing is for the MTA inform the public that their plates are tracked whether or not they pay with EZ-Pass. Second most people don’t know that they can buy prepaid ez-pass tags

Andrew August 30, 2010 - 11:14 pm

I agree, but I don’t know why this is being presented as a new proposal, since the deed was already done last year:

Scott E August 30, 2010 - 7:58 pm

The easiest way to reduce congestion is to remove the gates that go up and down between each car, and specifically the ones that trap non-EZPass tagholders in EZPass lanes. Use photo enforcement in those cases, like is done at every other EZPass toll plaza. (I’d also fix the signage on the RFK/Triboro leaving Manhattan, which suggests Queens-bound drivers must use cash lanes, and Bronx-bound drivers must use EZPass).

As far as variable rate tolling, I agree with charging different rates for Cash/EZPass-Peak/EZPass-Offpeak, but not with penalizing out-of-state drivers. These people are coming to the region to spend time and/or money (they aren’t simply passing through), and shouldn’t be penalized for not having any other choice.

Meyer August 30, 2010 - 9:22 pm

How about variable pricing that instead targets peak and off-peak times? If you pass through the tolls during rush hour, it’s 25% more than current prices. If you pass through during off-peak times, you get 25% off current prices.

john b August 31, 2010 - 11:32 am

i’m sure governor christie is going to love the revenue boost for the highway fund when new jersey responds by charging out of state new york drivers for using the parkway and turnpike.

Bolwerk August 31, 2010 - 11:37 am

He probably couldn’t do that without charging all out-of-state drivers more. Of course, that’s not an inherently bad idea from NJ’s perspective. The whole reason the turnpike works so beautifully, from a fiscal standpoint, is that out-of-state drivers subsidize NJT’s road system to an extent only red states with lots of Teabaggers usually enjoy – except in NJ’s case, the subsidies at least relate somewhat to usage.


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