NY Senate Majority Leader Espada in NY flips in favor of East River tolls
By Peter Samuel
The Democratic Majority leader in the New York state Senate Pedro Espada is pushing for $2/vehicle tolls on the four presently tax-supported East River bridges - the venerable Brooklyn Bridge, and the Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro bridges. Three other crossings are already tolled - the Triboro bridge, Queens-Midtown Tunnel and Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. (see map nearby)
Espada's toll advocacy is quite a turnaround since he was one of the leaders of the fight against previous proposals for restoring tolling on the bridges. All were built as toll bridges but de-tolled in 1911.
Estrada says he has changed his mind from last year because of the worsening financial situation of the MTA transit agency, which plans to eliminate student passes and reduce subway and bus routes. He said in interviews today that MTA chairman/CEO Jay Walder has "a great vision" but "needs the resources to work with."
He adds: "No one wants to increase any fees. But we're dealing with unprecedented fiscal challenges here. I want a full and open debate on our proposal."
"We can't just talk about the need to restore that service. We have to actually come up with the money."
He says a $2 toll each direction on the East River bridges will raise $525m/year which can be dedicated to the MTA to restore student passes and avert subway and bus service cuts.
Espada of Puerto Rican extraction grew up in the Bronx, graduating from Fordham College in health administration. He has represented a large slab of Bronx borough for some years and as majority leader in the state Senate has considerable influence.
Silver the key
For the proposal to move it will need to have the support of Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York state assembly. Silver's lack of support for the previous toll proposals was said to have doomed them. Silver is a careful behind-the-scenes politician who usually takes his time to stake out a position on such issues.
Mayor Bloomberg said today: "We had a plan to generate revenues starting a few years ago that would be used to improve mass transit, to get people to take mass transit rather than drive. It would've put more people on buses and generated more revenues. The Albany Legislature said no. Now we'll have to see what they come up with."
Traffic half a million a day
Average daily traffic on the four East River bridges is about 500k so toll revenue at $2/vehicle seems likely to produce only $350m or so in revenue ($2x500kx365), but there would be some increase in even at the three tolled East River crossings of MTA which presently carry about 230k/day.
Charles Komanoff, a mathematical modeler and longtime advocate of tolls has argued they could produce major benefits in terms of reducing congestion and speeding travel as well as funding transit. He estimated travel speeds will rise by 37% from the present 18mph average to 225mph.
Komanoff and others have generally argued for much higher tolls than Espada - tolls on a par with MTA tolls on the Triboro Bridge and Queens-Midtown and Brooklyn Battery tunnels, presently $5.50 cash/$4.57 E-ZPass.
Tolls at those levels would gross about $700m to $750m/year.
NOTE: the Triboro Bridge as it has always been known by New Yorkers is now officially named after Robert F Kennedy Bridge.
1911 July: Mayor William Gaynor questions legal authority for City collecting tolls and with little debate orders tolls ended two weeks later, losing $250k/yr
1966 Jan: Mayor John Lindsay looks at 25c tolls on East River bridges because of the City's "horrible" financial situation but the proposal not continued because of "the logistics" of toll booths on narrow approaches and "public distaste" for tolls
1973 Apr: Governor Nelson Rockefeller incorporates Mayor Lindsay's tolls plan as part of a package to meet clean air standards and fund transit, but the City Council rejects it
1977 Apr: Mayor Abe Beam falls behind a state legislative initiative to ban toll permanently on East and Harlem River bridges, the mayor citing cash toll collection as threatening increased traffic congestion and pollution
1977 Aug: Mayor Edward Koch declares support for tolls on East River Bridges together with tolls on travel south of 59th Street (Central Park) to reduce air pollution, but withdraws it after a political outcry
2007 Apr: Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposes a cordon toll around Manhattan south of 86th Street which included tolls on the East River bridges but after a year of debate and politicking it failed to get support in the state legislature
2008 Jan: Report of Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission headed by Marc Shaw looked at alternatives to Mayor Bloomberg's plan including tolls on the Harlem and East River bridges but favored a simplified version of cordon charges with the northern part of the cordon at 60th St
2008 Dec: a commission chaired by Richard Ravitch on financing of the New York area Metropolitan Transportation Authority which carries losses on the city's subways and buses proposes tolls on the East River and Harlem River bridges as well as a 0.003% payroll tax and other measures - not acted on
MTA Bridges & Tunnels: