Tolling the East River bridges: more MTA woes perhaps leading to a backend congestion charge?

First, to come clean: I supported the congestion charging plan. I thought it was a great alternative to the present system of inconsistent tolling of various routes into the midtown and downtown. For instance, if you come from wealthy Westchester, you can get to Midtown and Lower Manhattan without paying any tolls. If you come from poorer Staten Island (within the city!) or Rockland County, there’s no way to avoid a toll. The best routes of travel from Queens often are avoided, irrationally, by motorists trying to avoid the TBTA tolls (Triborough Bridge of Queens-Midtown Tunnel) by taking a “free” bridge. I bet such motorists waste more fuel in traffic than they would have spent just taking the closest bridge—and they don’t exist in a vacuum either. They’re probably causing unnecessary congestion too.

While the congestion charge had popular support, at least when people understood that its revenues were going to go to improving transit, it also had some powerful enemies. The most powerful enemy it had was, arguably, the New York State Assembly, which refused to even consider the proposal and killed it after the City Council voted in support of it. So desperate were the Assembly Democrats to pander to suburbanites that they were willing to violate the city’s sovereignty, and blew hundreds of millions of dollars in federal financing to get the program started.

Now, with the MTA’s budget even more in the pits, a commission appointed by Governor David Paterson to recommend new financing sources for the MTA came up with a plan that will have almost the same effect: tolling the East River and Harlem River bridges (“M.T.A. Needs Champion, but Who?” by William Neuman at The New York Times, 2008-11-29).

He is due to deliver a final report to the governor by Friday that is expected to include proposals for a tax on corporate payrolls in the region, tolls on the bridges across the East and Harlem Rivers and an increase in fares on the subway, bus and commuter railroads. Those measures would provide enough money for the authority to overcome a $1.2 billion budget gap next year and allow it to finance a long-term capital program that could cost as much as $30 billion through 2014.

The response to Mr. Ravitch at the partnership underscores the difficulty of his task. Kathryn S. Wylde, the president and chief executive of the group, said “the overwhelming reception” to Mr. Ravitch’s appeal — which did not include details of the payroll tax or tolls — was “positive.” But she also said that while business leaders might be open to a new tax to support the transportation authority, they were concerned about the possibility of multiple tax increases as the state and city sought to balance their budgets as well.

I’m not sure I would consider a new tax a good idea, although additional tolls are certainly fiscally sound.

Here’s what I’d like to see immediately before any new taxes are implemented in our overtaxed state: first, keep labor costs down. Don’t toll the East River bridges except electronically. Next, eliminate toll booths on the MTA bridges and tunnels and replace these tolls with electronic collection. For those who don’t have E-ZPass, send them a bill in the mail along with an E-ZPass (and charge them for the E-ZPass, plus labor)—that way there will be no excuse for not having a pass. Over the long term, this should cut the operating costs of the MTA bridges and tunnels drastically. Finally, permit and external, independent audit of all MTA operations to eliminate as many inefficiencies as possible, managerial and union alike.

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