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By Colin Mixson
New booth-less toll technology leaves Republican congressmen with no more excuses for maintaining the Verrazano Bridge’s one-way toll structure, which sends cash-strapped truckers from the outer boroughs and beyond flooding into Lower Manhattan, Downtown advocates say.
“We’ve been waiting 30 years for this tech to evolve,” said Sean Sweeny, executive director of the SoHo Alliance. “The time is now. Lets seize it!”
The current one-way toll for Staten Island-bound traffic dates back to 1986 as a way to ease pollution caused by idling traffic tied up at the bridge’s massive toll plaza on the Staten Island side of the span.
But this summer, the Verrazano is getting a cashless toll system, in which cameras record license plates as drivers zoom by, making concerns about booth-induced smog — and thus the rationals for the one-way toll — a thing of the past, locals argue.
As it is, the Verrazano’s exorbitant $16 toll for Staten Island- and New Jersey-bound drivers sends hordes of outer-borough and Long Island motorists — especially trucks — pouring over the toll-free East River bridges into Lower Manhattan, and turning crosstown thoroughfares into speedways as they head to the Holland Tunnel, which only taxes drivers heading into the city.
Truckers, who are charged by the axle at toll crossings, were especially keen to avoid the Verrazano’s high toll, although Downtown residents got a break after trucks with more than three axles were banned from the Holland Tunnel following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Canal Street in particular has earned a reputation as a hazardous speedway in the years since the Verrazano toll went one-way, according to Councilmember Margaret Chin.
“This is why crossing Canal Street is so dangerous,” said Chin. “We have to find a way to improve congestion and traffic safety.”
And as drivers detour around the Verrazano’s massive toll, the state loses out on millions in revenue, according to one Downtown activist.
“It’s incredible the amount of toll revenue that’s lost,” said Carl Rosenstein, a Downtowner who created a group called Trees Not Trucks to combat commercial trucking traffic caused by the one-way toll. “Hundreds of millions of dollars to the MTA system are gone. It’s really kind of criminal.”
But the crusaders face a big roadblock: the Verrazano is the only local toll bridge that falls under federal jurisdiction, and the Republican-dominated Congress has been reluctant to back any change that would agitate conservative Staten Island voters.
Republican congressman Dan Donovan, who represents voters on both sides of the bridge, vowed to oppose any measure to restore the two-way toll until he’s seen data proving that the change would decrease traffic and increase revenue, according to spokesman Patrick Ryan.
Until solid evidence emerges proving the efficacy of a two-way toll, the change will be a tough sell to Staten Island voters, who form the bulk of Donovan’s constituency, according to Ryan.
“I think that with any constituency, when you propose changing something that’s been in effect 30 years, all these theories come up that it’s going to be worse because of X-Y-Z,” Ryan said. “But if you can say ‘we’re going to get X amount of revenue we can use for this project, that makes it easier to discuss.”
Congressman Jerrold Nadler has been a longtime supporter of the two-way toll, but came under fire from constituents after he failed to see the change through when the House and Senate were briefly controlled by Democrats during the early years of Obama’s first term, according Rosenstein.
“The Dems had a veto-proof Congress and Nadler failed to do what he had promised his constituents,” said Rosenstein.
But ramming the change through Congress is more difficult than it seems, because it needs to be tacked onto more substantial transportation legislation, which didn’t materialize during the two-year window, according to Nadler’s district director Robert Gottheim.
But with the new toll technology, and President Trump championing new highway infrastructure programs, Nadler sees both the will and a way to realize a two-way toll on the Verrazano, said Gottheim.
“Looking forward, there’s a strong chance this can be done,” he said.
Regardless of what the future holds, one question will likely forever remain unanswered — how has Staten Island managed to screw over Lower Manhattan for this long?
“Why does this little backwater of New York City have such power that it can control the traffic flow in the center of the universe?” Sweeny asked. “Why are Trump supporters causing misery in Lower Manhattan. How is this allowed?”