Shelly’s Toll Plan: Promise Beyond the Headlines

It’s too early to know if Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s answer to the Ravitch Commission MTA bailout plan, which includes $2 tolls on East and Harlem River bridges, will make it through the state legislature. But, despite raising less money and reducing traffic much less than congestion pricing or peak-hour tolling would, the plan is a big advance and would provide a number of benefits beyond raising funds for transit. Streetsblog will look at the implications of the bridge tolls in more detail, but based on public comments and the Ravitch Commission report, here’s a quick summary of what’s in the offing if the plan passes.

General details:

  • New tolls on East and Harlem River Bridges equaling "a single ride subway fare," ($2 each way.*)
  • Management, possibly ownership, of East and Harlem River Bridges transferred to MTA from NYC DOT
  • Maintenance and operation of East and Harlem River Bridges transferred to MTA from NYC DOT
  • Truck tolls pro-rated on "single subway ride fare" or based on other MTA major crossings:$10 to $20.25 for 18-wheelers

Revenue (estimates only, given unknown truck toll and cost of tolling system):

  • $450 million to MTA operating and capital budget
  • $50-$100 million savings to NYC DOT in annual bridge maintenance and capital costs 

Traffic Reduction:

  • Major reductions in truck traffic on Manhattan Bridge, where trucks now constitute 25 percent of vehicle traffic
  • Major reductions  in overall traffic on Canal Street due to reductions in truck traffic
  • Modest traffic reductions in Long Island City, Downtown Brooklyn, Northern Manhattan, South Bronx

Unknowns:

  • Toll for taxis and for-hire vehicles
  • Toll for government placard holders
  • Toll for vans and smaller commercial vehicles
  • Two direction tolls?* Tolls on the Midtown Tunnel and other "major MTA crossings" are two-way. We assume new bridge tolls will be applied in each direction, so a round trip car commuter will pay $4. 
  • Exact status of management and operational control of East and Harlem River Bridges. To be determined by future agreement between MTA and NYC DOT: including bike/ped paths.

Of course, the State Senate has yet to offer up a plan of its own — for what it’s worth, the Senate has a new web site designed to gather public input on how to overcome the MTA budget shortfall — and early indications are that some prominent Senate Dems are opposed to tolls altogether. We will know shortly if Malcolm Smith’s pledge to consider tolls will result in the Senate passing Silver’s modified Ravitch plan.

For more on East River tolls, traffic reductions and who pays, check out these 2003 reports from Charles Komanoff [PDF] and by Bruce Schaller for Transportation Alternatives and Straphangers Campaign [PDF].

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Ownership of East and Harlem River Bridges transferred to MTA from NYC DOT, Maintenance and operation of East and Harlem River Bridges transferred to MTA from NYC DOT.”

    Debt service on money borrowed by NYC to rebuild these bridges transferred to the MTA, or will the city pay the debts while the toll money goes to the suburbs? If the debts don’t move as well, NYC is screwed just as it was with the TBTA. If the debts move, then it’s OK.

    And speaking of the TBTA, what share of the surplus toll revenue would go to city transit? Any? With no assurance, it may be assumed that the city’s share would fall as it did with the TBTA, from 67% when the MTA was formed in 1968 to typically less than
    50% in many years today.

    Any assurance that once the city no longer owns the bridge the state legislature won’t ban bicycles on the grounds that suburban residents can’t pedal that far, so city access is “unfair?” Once the bridges are in the MTA’s hands, you can forget about expanding bicycle and pedestrian access on the bridges.

    Rather than a sale, I’d prefer a lease, with the lease payments equal to the debt service, and the city retaining say over types of access.

  • Does anyone yet know if the $2 toll would be paid both ways – similar to a subway trip – or only in one direction? I did see one news report that said it would be paid in both directions, but it seems every other news outlet is making the assumption that the toll is only being paid inbound.

    If the toll is only one way, then the Triborough (sorry, RFK) Bridge, and Queens-Midtown and Brooklyn-Battery Tunnels will continue to be ghost towns in the afternoon, and drivers will, as now flood all of the other crossings. In addition, as noted elsewhere, there will continue to be toll shopping across the East River bridges in the morning, reducing much of the traffic benefit that the Ravitch plan would have given the neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens that house the Long Island anchorage of the four currently free bridges.

    Hence, I would question some of the traffic improvements alluded to above if these are only one-way tolls in the morning. They need to be put in for both directions.

  • John Kaehny

    The one-way East Bound toll on the Verrazano and the ban on East bound commercial traffic via the Holland Tunnel encourage a “counter clockwise” flow of commercial vehicles from NJ to Long Island. That means extra heavy West bound truck traffic on the Manhattan Bridge and Canal Street. Truck tolls on the East River Bridges will reduce that flow. How much depends on how high the tolls are, combined with the future of VZ tolls. Agreed that one of the flaws of the Silver/Ravitch plan is one way, fixed price tolls. However, two way, peak hour tolling is not in consideration. Agreed with Larry that cyclists and pedestrians should be concerned about the MTA taking over bridge paths from NYC DOT. There needs to be language in the state legislation guaranteeing continued high quality, bike/ped access to the bridges.

  • matt

    should motorcycles be exempt?

  • Does anyone yet know if the $2 toll would be paid both ways – similar to a subway trip – or only in one direction? I did see one news report that said it would be paid in both directions, but it seems every other news outlet is making the assumption that the toll is only being paid inbound.

    If it really is both ways, and it passes that way, then Shelly Silver is a fucking genius and I take back everything I’ve said about him.

  • John Kaehny

    The Ravitch Commission plan, which can be found here http://www.rpa.org/pdf/ravitchreport.pdf, proposed tolling the East River Bridges the same as other major MTA toll crossings and suggested that “toll rates imposed on the Harlem River Bridges be set at a level to match the cost of a single ride subway fare.” Silver has endorsed modifying the Ravitch plan to match all tolls to “a single ride subway fare.” This strongly suggests that the bridge tolls would be one-way inbound, which is what the mainstream media has also reported.

  • John, I don’t see how that implies that the tolls are one way. I read it to mean that there are bidirectional tolls, and each direction is the cost of a single subway ride (now $2).

  • John Kaehny

    Mike, thanks for your comment. I think you are correct and changed the text to reflect this. I was also contacted offline by some toll policy experts who reminded me that the other major MTA crossings into Manhattan are two-way, and that the Ravitch plan refers to basing the proposed new tolls on those existing crossings. My previous assumption that the toll was only one way inbound was based on an earlier conversation with a source, who I now think was mistaken. So, as you wrote, Silver’s proposed toll would be two-way, $2/single subway ride, each direction for a current total of $4 for a roundtrip tolled car trip. I changed the text of the story to reflect this.

  • John et al:

    What are your suggestions for amending the legislation to ensure the upkeep of the ped/bike paths on the East River bridges?

  • If trucks represent 25% of the traffic will they be charged only $2? Theoretically they should be charged more. Would it be flat fee or per axle or by weight?
    Either way trucks should pay their fair share of the burden.

  • Moser

    Even with all-electronic tolling, there is a revenue cost to processing more rather than fewer transactions, especially if the price is low. It would be in the public’s and MTA’s interest and would be operationally simpler to collect the tolls one-way. You can still peg the initial price to the fare (but perhaps it should be the post-hike fare), but then call it round-trip and collect $4 in one direction.

    Also, the truck flow issue is not just because of the commercial restrictions at the Holland Tunnel, which really only date from 9-11, but because the PA tolls are also one-way in-bound, so there is an incentive for trucks that are east of Manhattan to go straight across town and take the free exit from the city, vs. paying the double-toll at the S.I.-bound Verrazano. I doubt if low tolls on the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges will bring much relief in this regard, but it would be a start.

  • John/Moser:

    Lower Manhattan activists have been pushing for reversal of the Verrazano Tolls for years, back to its original configuration conforming with all the other toll directions.

    Shouldn’t others be agitating for that en masse as well?

    I buttonholed Schumer last week, and put his feet to the fire. (He had promised us during his 1998 campaign that he would work to reverse the Verrazano tolls, but reversed his position as soon as he got elected!). Anyway, Schumer didn’t give me a straight response – no surprise.

    However, many other electeds are on our side on this, but Staten Island has more votes.

    The MTA loses at least $50 million a year on tolls beaters who come through lower Manhattan – and that is a 1990 estimate. Figure close to $100 million today.

    Why are so few people ignoring this simple revenue potential and traffic-congestion mitigation solution?

  • John,

    Thanks for clearing up that original misconception. While $2 each way isn’t $5, and thus there will still be toll shopping that will hurt the downtown/midtown bridges, hopefully the marginal driver will now be encouraged to take the subway/bus instead since the price is no different.

    On another note, read the Governor’s MTA bill on the Senate website this morning, and there are a few items of note that could merit a separate news item should the “MTA Audit” log-jam free up potential passage of the bill later this week. First, I-95/Trans-Manhattan Expressway drivers will not get tolled so long as they stay on the road and go through Manhattan into New Jersey. It would seem difficult to plug all of the holes on 95 through Manhattan, though, so there may be drivers who get off 95 onto the Henry Hudson/West Side Highway or local streets in order to avoid a $2 toll. Could create an even more monumental Cross-Bronx X-Way morning commute log-jam.

    Also, Governor’s bill proposes severing NYC Transit buses away from the subways to form the Regional Bus Authority. Not sure of the positives or negatives of that, but I imagine the more enlightened readers of this blog will be able to parse that out.

  • fdr

    Sean Sweeney…as long as politicians like Bloomberg and Schumer are looking for votes on Staten Island, they’ll never support a return to tolls on the Verrazano exiting Staten Island. They’re sure that outraged Staten Islanders will come out to vote against them en masse.

  • “Maintenance and operation of East and Harlem River Bridges transferred to MTA from NYC DOT”

    =Uh-Oh. If the MTA can barely maintain their own infrastructure, how are they going to maintain bridges?

  • Larry Littlefield

    I have always been very cynical about the regional bus authority, and think it is a very, very bad idea.

    It’s only purpose as far as I can see is to merge the city’s buses, which cover a higher share of their costs, with suburban buses, which cover a lower share, allowing a cross-subsidy from the former to the latter.

    But you pay a price. Where will the top leadership of the regional bus authority have their offices? And what is the likelihood of them actually showing up a bus depot or on a route, given that their responsibility could extend from Dutchess County to the Hamptons? That doesn’t speak well for the possiblity of hands-on management.

  • Isn’t there something big missing here called a payroll tax?

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