Volume 16 • Issue 20 | October 14 - 20, 2003

Mayor, Silver shift views on tolls

By Josh Rogers

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, left, and Mayor Bloomberg thanked N.F.L. commissioner Paul Tagliabue for a $5 million donation to Lower Manhattan projects last week before talking about their positions on bridge tolls in Sara D. Roosevelt Park.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg last week threw some cold East River water on a new report detailing the benefits of keeping the city’s bridges free to New Yorkers while instituting tolls to suburbanites. Minutes later, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver voiced his strongest support to date for East River bridge tolls — as long as city residents could get large discounts.

Bloomberg began shifting into reverse on his toll support last year, a few months after he first suggested it as a way to help close the city’s budget deficit. The idea has strong opposition from drivers on the Lower East Side, Chinatown and in Brooklyn and Queens, but is seen favorably by many people who live in the western sections of Lower Manhattan, where there is better subway service and where people feel overwhelmed by the traffic generated from free bridges and free trips to New Jersey through the Holland Tunnel.

At a press conference Tuesday, Bloomberg said he did not think the Independent Budget Office’s estimate that the city could make $300 million a year by tolling non-city residents crossing the East and Harlem River bridges was important since he doubted whether the plan could ever be approved.

“The political reality of whether that can be passed is questionable,” Bloomberg said at Sara D. Roosevelt Park on the Lower East Side.

The mayor and Silver were Downtown to thank Paul Tagliabue, commissioner of the National Football League, for $5 million in N.F.L. donations for Lower Manhattan projects, including $25,000 for a cleanup program in the park.

Bloomberg said getting tolls approved would take too long.

“To do tolling, you would need to do a lengthy environmental impact study and state legislation,” Bloomberg said. “It would be a long time.”

Silver, whose district includes the Lower East Side and Chinatown, had been a toll opponent, but last week he said he would support them if city residents received “substantial discounts.”

“I would oppose a substantial toll for city residents going from one part of the city to another,” Silver added.

His movement toward tolling comes while Bloomberg is driving in the other direction on the issue.

Silver disagreed with the mayor on two points — that a citywide discount was unrealistic and that the city needed state legislation for tolls.

Silver said Staten Island residents receive large discounts on the Verrazano Bridge and similarly, Rockaway residents get discounts on the bridges linking them to the rest of the city.

“One never knows what’s realistic,” Silver said. “People thought the Verrazano Bridge was something that would never happen.”

Silver, who controls one half of the State Legislature, said, “I believe the city can do it on their own.”

There are perhaps two scenarios by which the city could avoid state legislation. One is to sell the bridges to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, controlled by the governor, and let the M.T.A. implement tolls. This has been criticized by some because the city would have to forgo control of the bridges.

The second would be for the city to set up a local development corporation, said Preston Niblack, deputy director of the I.B.O. Silver did not specify how he thought the city could avoid the state with tolls.

Niblack said it was his understanding that the L.D.C. approach had potential legal problems and would likely have to survive a lawsuit.

I.B.O. officials were not dissuaded by the mayor’s cool reaction to the report, which was released last week.

“We have no disagreement [with Bloomberg],” said Doug Turetsky, spokesperson for the I.B.O. “It would take time to get this up and running.”

The report did not recommend any plan and Turetsky said the goal was to examine what the options are.

The budget office is an independent city agency that is funded from a fixed formula not controlled by the mayor or City Council.

The report concluded that the city could make $693 million a year from tolling the city bridges. An estimated $502 million would come from the East River bridges, the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro, and $191 million from the Harlem River overpasses, which include the Willis and Third Ave. Bridges. If there were an exemption for city residents, the tolls would bring in $308 million — $210 million from the East River and $98 million from Harlem. The report did not estimate the revenue from Silver’s discount idea.

The budget office estimated that 43 percent of the drivers over the East River are from out of the city and that 51 percent of the Harlem crossers are out-of-towners.

Charles Komanoff, a longtime advocate for bridge tolls, was skeptical of some of the I.B.O. numbers. He has conducted two studies of the issue and has concluded that only 22 percent of East River drivers are from out of the city. If so, the city exemption idea would end many of the “traffic-busting benefits” and significantly reduce the amount of revenue, said Komanoff.

Komanoff said he could support a small discount for citywide residents if that were the only way to get tolls approved. But Komanoff added that any discount would reduce the pollution benefits and would reduce the revenue available for things like public transportation, education, parks and libraries.

Both he and Niblack agree that each method of estimating the number of suburbanites has flaws, but Niblack said 20 percent sounded like it was way off the mark.

“I don’t think that’s a plausible number on its face,” said Niblack. “It may not be 45 percent, but I think it’s a lot closer to 45 percent than it is to 20 percent.”

Komanoff used 1990 census figures showing the number of outer-borough and suburban residents who drive to Manhattan to work. He used extrapolations to calculate the number of leisure trips and trips through tolled roadways such as the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.

The I.B.O. used a 1991 city Dept. of Transportation study and a 1997-1998 household survey of leisure driving trips.

Bruce Schaller, who recently released a toll report for Transportation Alternatives, said he used similar numbers to the I.B.O., but it is more likely Komanoff’s estimate is closer to the truth. Schaller said he figures that probably something like 70 percent of East River bridge drivers are from the city and 30 percent are from elsewhere. He said he used the I.B.O. numbers because he didn’t have a scientific basis to determine how much to adjust the transportation survey.

“My own sense is, it’s probably something like 70 percent,” he said. “If it’s 70 or 75 or 68, who knows?”

Schaller said he does not understand the level of opposition to tolls in Brooklyn and Queens because he estimated the traffic would be reduced by 13 percent on local streets in Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City if drivers no longer had an incentive to avoid the Brooklyn-Battery and Queens-Midtown Tunnels.

“I wonder why they want all these drivers riding through Downtown Brooklyn streets rather than taking the tunnel,” Schaller said.

Perhaps this is the reason Councilmember David Yassky of Downtown Brooklyn is one of the few Brooklyn politicians who is not opposed to tolls. Evan Thies, Yassky’s spokesperson, said his boss is not for them either, but he would welcome an environmental study examining the merits.

Marty Markowitz, Brooklyn’s borough president, is another matter.

Andy Ross, Markowitz’s spokesperson, said even if the tolls were coupled with a reduction in property taxes, which hit Brooklyn hard, Markowitz would still be opposed because citizens from the Kings’ borough would pay too much.

“We believe Brooklyn would bear the brunt on any toll,” Ross said.

He also questioned whether overhead E-ZPass monitors eliminating the need for tollbooths could work in New York City.

“This tollbooth technology has never been tested on as large as scale that this would require,” he said. “To say it would reduce congestion — just may not be the case.”

Schaller, Komanoff and Niblack agree that the people who pay the tolls have higher incomes than their neighbors and would have an easier time affording tolls than the average city taxpayers.

Komanoff said he was disappointed that after the mayor first floated the idea of tolls in February 2002, he did not follow through in the face of opposition like he did with anti-smoking legislation. For example, Komanoff said most people don’t know about the new technologies eliminating the need for tollbooths and lines.

Had the mayor pressed on last year, he would not be harping on the lengthy review process, Komanoff said. “The mayor only has himself to blame for not putting the studies in motion.”



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