July 19 a day of mourning - tolls went down in NYC

July 6, 2005
By Peter Samuel
Bascove's Brooklyn Bridge
Bascove's Brooklyn Bridge
Toll booth at Manhattan Bridge 1909
Toll booth at Manhattan Bridge 1909

July 19 is a day of mourning for the toll industry. 94 years ago on this day tolling ceased on four of the world's great toll bridges - the Brooklyn, Williamsburg, Manhattan and Queensboro bridges in New York City. These bridges and the city of New York have suffered from lack of tolling ever since.

Tolls were collected as follows:

* Brooklyn Bridge for 28 years 1883 to 1911

* Williamsburg Bridge for 8 years 1903 to 1911

* Queensboro Bridge only 28 months Mar 1909 to July 1911

* Manhattan Bridge only 20 months Dec 1909 to July 1911

Lacking any user-based revenue stream these four bridges have been neglected for long periods and fallen into disrepair and decay. Then with threatened closures they have been put through drastic and expensive reconstruction at the expense of taxpayers in general - a sad cycle of deterioration and wasteful rebuild which most toll facilities avoid through toll-funded annual maintenance. Sections of the East River bridges have been closed for extended periods because of neglect caused by their dysfunctional reliance on general fund appropriations.

Lack of tolls has also meant their traffic is unmanaged, gets congested, and is inefficient. Variable toll rates would enable maintenance of safer, more efficient traffic flows.

So why was the destructive decision taken to detoll the bridges in the summer of 1911?

No history

There are scores of articles, films and books on these bridges, but they typically concentrate on the politics that preceded their construction, the engineering drama of their erection, and in the case of the Brooklyn Bridge on the human drama of man's first encounter with 'the bends' or caisson disease suffered by workers coming out of their shifts in a high pressure environment. The awful human tragedies of the bridge engineers - the brilliant but sad Roebling father, son and wife team - is the focus of much of the Brooklyn Bridge history.

There's almost zero written on how these great works were funded - as if the money just magically appeared once the engineering and political issues were dealt with. I haven't found any book on the East River bridges which even mentions the removal of tolls in 1911, let alone explains what happened. This is an extraordinary gap in history given the importance to the life of a bridge of a dedicated revenue stream like tolls for its upkeep against the ravages of the weather, and of load stresses.

A couple of years ago a kind lady at the New York Public Library researched the issue specifically for us. She did quite a search and that all she could find on detolling the East River bridges were two reports in the New York Times dated July 7 and July 19, 1911. It's something.

"No legal warrant"

The July 7 report said the mayor, W. J. Gaynor, believed tolls were being collected on the four city bridges without any legal warrant. He had asked Arthur J O'Keefe, the city's Bridge Commissioner, head of the city department in charge of the bridges, to "find out if there is any warrant in law for the collection (of tolls), and if not to discontinue the practice."

The Times report then printed in full O'Keefe's response to the mayor. The bridge commissioner said he had done a careful examination and found no legal authority for collecting tolls on the Manhattan and Queensboro bridges.

The report doesn't make this point but in fact these two bridges had only opened 20 months and 28 months earlier. Both apparently had been built with general city tax financing, and they were tolled simply because tolls were the norm.

First two built on state charters

There were tolls on the two older bridges, the Brooklyn Bridge (opened 1883) and the Williamsburg Bridge (opened 1903). Both these had been built under toll bridge charters or concessions. The Brooklyn Bridge originated in the charter of the New York Bridge Company issued by the state of New York to a group of well-connected businessmen in April 1967. No competitive tenders. Just a grant.

The Williamsburg Bridge originated in a 1892 charter to an East River Bridge Company controlled by Frederick Uhlmann owner of elevated railroads in Brooklyn. He planned the bridge mainly as a rail bridge. He wanted to extend his Brooklyn rail lines west over the East River into Manhattan. But he was stymied gaining rights to operate on Manhattan by competitors there.

1895 first state toll commission

In 1895 Uhlman sold his charter for $200k to a New East River Commission, one of the first not-for-profit state toll authorities formed in the wake of the exposure of racketeering by Democratic Party controllers of the New York Bridge Company. The NYBC which started the Brooklyn Bridge was what we would call today a public-private partnership. The pols made sure there was maximum taxpayer "public" contribution - $3m from the city of Brooklyn and $1.5m from the city of New York - and minimal demands on the controlling investors, whose contribution has never been fully accounted for, but seems to have been less than $500k. William Kingsley head of the Democratic Party "Brooklyn Ring" and the largest shareholder took a personal commission seven times the then salary of the US president in the first year of the Brooklyn Bridge's construction. Kingsley worked the racket in conjunction with his New York party counterpart William 'Boss' Tweed of Tammany Hall notoriety. Kingsley's Brooklyn Bridge politicking gave rise to the term carpetbagger for a corrupt pol because Kingsley did the rounds each month paying off key city officials and state politicians carrying bundles of cash in a carpet bag.

The press exposes and state investigation led to the demise of the Kingsley and Tweed "rings." Reform politicians who came into office revoked the NYBC charter in May 1875 even before the bridge was completed. When the Brooklyn Bridge opened the crooked "investors" were out, and the bridge was owned by the then unified New York City.

O'Keefe - lawyers screwed up

Bridge commissioner O'Keefe wrote Mayor Gaynor July 5 1911 that the two recently opened bridges, the Manhattan and Queensboro bridges were built by virtue of the authority found in a Section 47 of the city charter but he added: "That section does not provide for tolls, and I understand that no fees or tolls can be collected by a public official unless they are authorized by some law."

He explained the collection of tolls: "Bridge commissioners heretofore (until now have) collected tolls on these two bridges simply because they were collecting tolls on the other two bridges, namely the Brooklyn Bridge and the Williamsburg Bridge."

O'Keefe also said the right to collect tolls on the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridge "seems to be in doubt."

The state act (of 1875) under which the two cities of New York and Brooklyn took over the Brooklyn Bridge from the disbanded New York Bridge Company authorized the cities to appoint a board of trustees for the bridge and that board would have the power to establish tolls. The board was abolished when New York and Brooklyn were unified as New York City (in 1882). The new city charter substituted a single Bridge Commissioner for the former board and gave him all the powers and duties of the former board.

Wrote O'Keefe: "(The Bridge Commissioner) therefore succeeded to the power of the said Board of Trustees to establish tolls on the (Brooklyn) Bridge..." So far so good for tolls.

But Keefe noted that another section of the new city charter (Sec 598) provides that the Bridge would be "subject to such tolls as the Board of Aldermen shall prescribe."

There was an overlapping jurisdiction to toll!

"It is now disputable whether the the power (to toll) be in the Bridge Commissioner or in the Board of Aldermen."

As for tolling the Williamsburg bridge the same powers were given to the city as for the Brooklyn Bridge tolls under Chapter 612 of the (state) Laws of 1896, O'Keefe wrote. Again there was dual power to toll!

In other words the city's toll lawyers had screwed up! (Nossaman & Co in their early days?)

Presumably if the city pols had been inclined they could have fixed the law, clarifying how tolls would be set in future.

They just wanted to end the tolls

Bridge Commissioner O'Keefe favored abolition of tolls anyway, writing the mayor: "Please consider whether we should not cease to collect tolls on the (Brooklyn and Williamsburg) bridges also, either because we have no power to collect them or else because they should not any longer be levied as a matter of discretion... For my part, I see no more reason for toll gates on the bridges than for toll gates on Fifth Avenue or Broadway. Toll gates have been abolished all over the country, and I see no reason why they should be retained here."

O'Keefe said that the net revenue from the four bridges tolls was around $274,000 a year, adding: "This comparatively small sum can be more justly collected through the annual tax levy than by means of tolls. The tolls are oppressive to many people and inconvenient and tiresome to everyone."

The Times report July 7 ended however: "So far as is known the Mayor has received no complaint from anyone regarding the tolls."

This suggests there was no organized movement against tolls, just that the Mayor and his bridge commissioner disliked tolls, and the city was financially strong enough to do without the revenue.

The July 19 1911 report in the Times was headlined "Bridge tolls are no more: every span across the East River free beginning to-day." it says the Mayor "yesterday" directed the bridge commissioner to "throw open all the bridges and abolish all tolls." July 19 was the first toll-free day. This report quotes Corporation Counsel Watson as having expressed the opinion that tolls were optional and also that it wasn't clear if the bridge commissioner or aldermen were the formal authority for toll setting.

Francis Bent stuck up for tolls

The Mayor had asked the aldermen for a resolution making the bridges free. Most went along. Only one alderman is on record as objecting. The vice-chairman of the Board of Aldermen Francis P. Bent stuck up for tolls arguing that for the most part tolls were paid by wealthy people "who didn't care whether they pay tolls or not." Bent denounced the toll abolition proposal as being perfectly in line with New York's reputation as "the most socialistic city in the world." He was outvoted obviously.

The Times said in this July 19 report the city would lose "about $250,000 a year in tolls." Against that some 70 toll collectors would be laid off, saving about $50,000 a year in salaries.

A sorry day for New York and tolling! TOLLROADSnews 2005-07-05


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