For whom the bridge tolls: Study shows two-way Verrazano toll would slash Downtown traffic

The study showed that a two-way toll on the Verrazano Bridge would significantly reduce the number of delivery trucks — like these backed up at Hudson and Watts streets — that traverse Lower Manhattan on their way between New Jersey and Long Island.
Photo by Sydney Pereira

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA 

A report commissioned by the Hudson Square Connection has revealed what Downtowners have long known: A two-way toll on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge would drastically reduce traffic congestion in Lower Manhattan.

Sam Schwartz Engineering’s report, headed by the transit expert known to Downtown Express readers as “Transit Sam,” revealed that up to 137 vehicles per hour could be removed from westbound Canal, Watts and Houston streets with a two-way bridge toll.

“This is really some low-hanging fruit and really a pretty quick and relatively easy fix,” said Ellen Baer, president of the Hudson Square Connection Business Improvement District.

These corridors are where vehicles head westbound toward the Holland Tunnel. With Staten Island-bound traffic on the Verrazano being tolled — but not Manhattan-bound traffic — Schwartz estimates that 70 percent of westbound trips to New Jersey take the route through Manhattan instead of the I-278 route through Staten Island.

“Until you actually look at the numbers, you always question where perception ends and reality begins,” Baer said. “Now we know.”

The engineering firm studied several scenarios of congestion reduction on westbound Canal, Watts and Houston streets, including a two-way toll on the bridge; two different congestion-pricing plans known as MoveNY and Fix NYC; and a two-way toll and congestion-pricing plan combined. MoveNY is a congestion-pricing plan developed by Schwartz along with a coalition of various stakeholders. Fix NYC is a proposal by a task force Governor Andrew Cuomo built upon the earlier, grassroots MoveNY plan.

A two-way toll and MoveNY combination would reduce up to 337 vehicles per hour along the three critical streets — the greatest volume reduction of all the scenarios.

The length of the lines of cars backed up on the streets would be cut by up to 1,100 feet between westbound Canal, Watts and Houston streets with the two-way toll. But the combo of two-way bridge tolling and MoveNY would shorten the lines of traffic by up to 2,700 feet between the three streets.

“On a day now where you might see a queue start at [3:30 or 4 o’clock], and then you have queueing nonstop until about 6:30 or so on a typical weekday — that window is going to shorten,” said Jeff Smithline, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Sam Schwartz Engineering.

The study comes as no surprise to the Downtown community. Lora Tenenbaum, a longtime Soho resident and former Community Board 2 member, remembers the day the one-way toll was implemented in 1986.

“The day the one-way toll was put into effect, traffic was so backed up, cars were literally driving on the sidewalk because nobody wanted to pay a double toll,” Tenebaum said. Since then, she’s been fighting alongside other community activists to restore the two-way toll.

The lack of a dual-direction bridge toll may have mitigated backups at the Staten Island toll plaza, but the change also created a free route to New Jersey across Manhattan’s East River bridges, through Downtown and on through the Holland Tunnel. After the toll change, traffic swamped the neighborhood.

Preliminary studies shortly after the two-way toll was scrapped in 1986 revealed added congestion on Canal St. and an increase of 4,000 vehicles per day through the Holland Tunnel, The New York Times reported at the time. Traffic also worsened on the Brooklyn side of the Verrazano while decreasing on the Staten Island side, the Times reported more than 32 years ago.

“It’s been horrendous,” said Shirley Secunda, chairwoman of CB 2’s Transportation Committee. “I mean, we’ve been complaining for years.”

Councilmembers Margaret Chin, who represents Lower Manhattan, and Justin Brannan, who represents Bay Ridge, are calling on the federal government to reinstate the two-way toll, as well. In late June, the two announced a resolution requesting that Congress pass and the president sign legislation to allow two-way tolling on the bridge.

Their resolution says the “inefficient routes cost the MTA much-needed toll revenue that could be used to support the region’s mass transit system and has been blamed for exacerbating congestion problems in areas such as Canal St. in Lower Manhattan.”

Back in 2010, hopes were high when Robert Gottheim, Rep. Jerry Nadler’s district director, said Nadler was aiming to integrate the two-way toll change into a federal transportation bill. CB 2 voted in support of a “speedy return” to the two-way toll. But the change never happened.

“We have never stopped bugging Jerry Nadler’s office about this,” Secunda said. “I do think he keeps trying, but it’s a problem.”

Nadler, who represents Manhattan’s West Side and parts of South Brooklyn, supports rebalancing the toll. But the delay has been partly due to concern over traffic backups at the bridge’s tolling plazas in Staten Island — the original reason former Congressman Guy Molinari called for the one-way toll more than three decades ago. However, last summer, cashless, electronic tolling went live. Vehicles no longer have to stop at tolling plazas, reducing possible traffic backup. As Chin and Brannan added in their recent resolution, “Those concerns are largely moot.”

“This is the only bridge in the United States where a federal government tells a local agency how to collect money,” Gottheim said. “With current, modern electronic tolling, it’s no longer an issue. We talked to our counterpart in Staten Island — Dan Donovan — and he has been open to it.”

With Republicans controlling Congress, Gottheim added, Donovan’s role in making the change is key. Gottheim explained that a stand-alone bill could repeal the one-way toll and restore control to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to reinstate a two-way toll.

“My logic is pretty simple on the two-way toll: If it relieves congestion for Staten Island and South Brooklyn, I’ll support it,” Donovan said in a statement. “If it makes traffic worse, I won’t.”

Donovan requested that the MTA complete a study on the matter, particularly analyzing whether a two-way toll would discourage drivers from New Jersey from entering the city through Staten Island, encourage drivers from Long Island and Brooklyn to enter New Jersey through Staten Island instead of Manhattan, and how it would impact MTA revenue and Staten Island / South Brooklyn traffic.

“I’m waiting on the results of the traffic analysis the MTA began last year at my request,” Donovan added. “Once I see the numbers, I’ll make a decision.”

The planned L train shutdown is only expected to further exacerbate longtime traffic concerns in Lower Manhattan. The shutdown, slated to begin April 2019 and last 15 months along the L line between Bedford and Eighth avenues, will also bring four new bus routes through Soho, Little Italy and the Lower East Side.

The traffic relief that restoring the two-way Verrazano toll would bring is needed now more than ever, said Pete Davies, a Soho activist and member of the Broadway Residents Coalition.

“When put into context of the upcoming L train shutdown — described by the Department of Transportation and MTA as a transportation situation ‘without precedent’ and the ‘biggest logistical challenge’ that has ever been undertaken,” Davies said, “it is mind-boggling that our elected representatives at all levels — federal, state, and city — aren’t doing whatever is necessary to ease the traffic burden on Lower Manhattan and nearby areas.”

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