‘Mad as hell’ about Downtown tolls

Downtown Express file photo by Sam Spokony Looking east on Canal St., from the Sixth Ave. intersection.

Downtown Express file photo by Sam Spokony
Looking east on Canal St., from the Sixth Ave. intersection.

BY SAM SCHWARTZ   |  Lower Manhattanites are getting “railroaded” (or should I say “trucked”) and have been for a quarter century ever since an act of Congress dictated that tolls on the Verrazano Bridge should be collected only in the Staten Island-bound direction.

This meant that drivers leaving the island would not stop but drivers entering would pay double. It was the brain-child of then Staten Island congressman Guy Molinari. The theory was to back traffic up on the bridge, but not within Staten Island. In actuality, the Staten Island backup on a highway away from homes and pedestrians was transferred to the streets of Downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan.

I opposed the plan at the time as a city Dept. of Transportation official, predicting more traffic jams and casualties on Canal St., Chambers St., Centre St. etc., and in Brooklyn, but the city was ignored and the one-way tolls went into effect March 20, 1986.

My fears have been realized and continue today. Here’s why:

A car driver in Brooklyn heading to say Newark Airport can take I-278 to the Verrazano Bridge to the Staten Island Expressway to the Goethals Bridge. He or she would pay $10.66 with E-ZPass or $15 cash in tolls at the Verrazano. If the driver takes Downtown Brooklyn streets and goes over the Brooklyn Bridge onto Chambers to Hudson and out the Holland Tunnel to Rt. 1 & 9 she or he would pay nothing, nada, zilch.

A truck driver would save even more money. For example, a five-axle truck would pay over $50 E-ZPass, and $80 cash to make the same trip over the Verrazano Bridge, but would shell out nothing to go over the Manhattan Bridge onto Canal St. and out the Holland Tunnel (the biggest trucks would go out the Lincoln). Essentially the bigger you are the more money you save.

I’d like to tell you this is an isolated example but, in fact, our toll structure within the City of New York is so screwed up that many neighborhoods suffer immensely while lots of drivers pay too much at some bridges and others pay nothing. This causes “bridge shopping” where motorists drive out of their way to save toll money.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than at the 105-year-old Ed Koch-Queensboro Bridge. It is the only bridge I know of in the world that is “sandwiched” between two toll crossings so close together.

To get into Manhattan through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel or over the RFK-Triborough Bridge costs a driver $5.33 each-way E-ZPass with truckers paying $40 or more. But, that driver or trucker using the Queensboro pays nothing. But, not only does that driver take an indirect route adding miles to a trip, he/she also typically leaves a highway to use city streets to get to the bridge (all the toll facilities have long highways leading to them, the “free” bridges are mostly accessed by city streets).

More miles + switching from highways to streets = more crashes, injuries, and fatalities. No wonder that both ends of the Queensboro Bridge rank as crash hot spots. (Downtowners already know Canal St. is one of the most treacherous roads anywhere in the city).

So what’s the answer? In short, let’s do a “Tabula Rasa” (i.e. start all over again) on all our bridges and tunnels and figure out how to be fair, how to reduce vehicle miles travelled, and how to save lives.

With a team of transportation and policy experts we have come up with the MOVE NY plan. Bridge shopping comes to an end; we return tolls to the four East River bridges (they were all built with tolls when they opened until 1911).

Do the same for people entering from the north across 60th St. Not a toll booth would be built; money would be collected via E-ZPass (80% of drivers have them), license plate photography and via apps. Lower the tolls at all the outer bridges that don’t go into Manhattan’s business district. This will reduce the pressure to drive through Manhattan to New Jersey. Charge a little more for taxis in Manhattan (although those cabs will move faster offsetting some of the increase).

For a full description of the plan please visit: move-ny.org. So as a Lower Manhattanite myself I am asking my neighbors to join with me and shout “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.” Implement the MOVE NY plan.

Sam Schwartz, a.k.a. “Gridlock Sam,” is the president and C.E.O. of Sam Schwartz Engineering, and the author of Downtown Express’s Transit Sam column.

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2 Responses to ‘Mad as hell’ about Downtown tolls

  1. Denny Rodriguez

    Agree with lower tolls on all the bridges and tunnels. I do not agree on paying to drive around Manhattan. You already pay to get in. Also no extra fees for cabs. Why? Car service and cabs move 500,000 people a day.

  2. Fantastic post!

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