Pedro Espada’s Student Fare Fix: Toll the East River Bridges

No, it’s not April First.

The Daily News and the Times-Union report that the Bronx pol who played a critical role in derailing bridge tolls last spring has proposed, yes, tolling the East River bridges.

Espada’s office says that more than $500 million could be raised annually from two-way $2 tolls on the East River bridges, funds that would be used to prevent service cuts and restore discount student fares. His proposal does not include tolls on the Harlem River bridges. According to the Daily News, the State Senate will not include the idea as part of its upcoming state budget proposal, which may be approved as soon as today.

So has Espada given new life to road pricing or is this too little too late? A back-of-the-envelope calculation by road pricing maven Charles Komanoff suggests that the revenue projections are too optimistic by a large margin, but the net gain — about $240 million, at most — would seem to fall within the range needed to cover the cost of maintaining service and student fares.

We have a request in with the Senate leadership for comment. The Assembly, where bridge tolls pegged to the subway fare apparently enjoyed majority support last spring, has been characteristically tight-lipped. "At this point Speaker Silver is still in conversation with all members of the Assembly majority," a spokesperson told Streetsblog this morning.

While Espada hasn’t exactly endeared himself to other Democrats in Albany, his change of stance may signify the erosion of the bloc that killed bridge tolls last year. Note, however, that the proposed tolls won’t affect downtown-bound car commuters from
his district (only about three percent of his constituents, by the way [PDF]). And the Espada/Ruben Diaz, Sr./Carl Kruger alliance had already dissolved with the departure of their disgraced Fare Hike Four colleague Hiram Monserrate.

One thing to keep an eye on is whether any proposal for new MTA revenue also includes an ironclad "lockbox" mechanism to guarantee the money goes to transit. As we’ve seen, dedicated transit revenue is not, in fact, dedicated exclusively to transit.

Noah Kazis contributed to this post.

  • fdr

    Espada says toll the East River bridges, which don’t affect his constituents, but not Harlem River. Queens and Brooklyn pols will say the opposite. In a compromise, they will agree not to toll any of them.

  • So what happens when Albany decides to take the bridge tolls away from the MTA and diverts them to fill it’s next budget gap?

    Pedro could offer to restore the MTA taxes he and the rest of the crooks stole for their budget, but I supposed that’s a bridge too far (sorry, couldn’t resist!)

  • (by MTA taxes, I mean the tax revenue collected for the MTA specifically that was then not put in the MTA’s budget, but diverted to the state’s budget)

  • Is $240 million the gross revenue, or the net revenue after the cost of maintaining the bridges (currently paid by NYC DOT) is subtracted?

  • Mike — $240M is my prelim est. of net revenue after deducting annualized costs to build, operate and maintain the tolling infrastructure. Regular bridge maintenance costs remain as they are — in a separate account.

  • Well, it’s hardly fair for NYCDOT to pay to maintain the bridges when NYCT gets the revenue from crossings. The original congestion pricing plan would have the toll revenue first pay for bridge maintenance, then be used for other purposes.

  • Mike, I’m not sure your historical interpretation is correct. But to me, it’s beside the point. Isn’t the issue the amount of new revenue that could be raised with tolls or congestion pricing? The need to maintain the bridges is unaffected by the presence or absence of tolls and c.p.

  • iSkyscraper

    It’s a shame that the geo-politics card is being played here, since anyone who lives near a Harlem River Bridge knows that it is ridiculous to compare them to the urban situation around East River Bridges. One group is a set of large expressway-like crossings that surround a jam-packed CBD filled with transit alternatives. The group are bridges in name only and about as logical a toll barrier as drawing a random line across any cross street in upper Manhattan.

    The Henry Hudson, the GW – that would be one thing. But they are mostly already tolled. If you want to toll the GW ramps so that you can’t cross into Manhattan from the Bronx and go down the West Side Highway without paying a toll, ok. But leave poor little 207th St Bridge and its ilk alone, or at least charge a reduced rate to the East River spans. They are simply different bridges with different contexts.

  • JamesR

    I agree with you. Tolling the minor bridges like the Broadway Bridge and 207th St Bridge would be nuts, as the context just isn’t the same as those of the East River goliaths. These crossings carry city streets between residential neighborhoods. That’s it. The way that they are integrated into the urban design of the neighborhood differs drastically from that of the East River Bridges, and logistically, I can’t quite wrap my mind around how you’d toll something like the Broadway Bridge. If there’s someone out there who can envision how the tolling configuration could feasibly work, then by all means, enlighten me.

  • JamesR: All tolls would be collected electronically. No toll booths would be installed on or near any of these bridges. Drivers without EZ-Pass would have their license plates photographed and would be billed by mail.

  • Jonathan

    iSkyscraper, JamesR: I live near the Harlem River. Let’s discuss the “poor little 207th St Bridge and its ilk”:

    Willis Ave Bridge: connects Harlem River Drive northbound (exit 18) to East 135th St, right near the onramp to I-87 northbound.

    3rd Ave Bridge: connects I-87 southbound (exit 2) to FDR drive southbound.

    135th St Bridge: connects local traffic from Manhattan to I-87 in both directions.

    145th St Bridge: no direct onramp to I-87 here; connects West 145th St in Manhattan with West 149th St in the Bronx.

    Macombs Dam Bridge: connects I-87 to local Manhattan traffic and to Henry Hudson Parkway, via 155th, Broadway, and 157th Sts.

    High Bridge: no traffic until opening for pedestrians and bicyclists.

    Alexander Hamilton Bridge: I-95 highway bridge, connects Trans-Manhattan Expressway to Cross Bronx Expressway.

    Washington Bridge: connects local traffic in Manhattan to the Cross Bronx eastbound, and Cross Bronx westbound to local traffic in Manhattan.

    University Heights Bridge: connects Harlem River Drive and local Manhattan traffic to I-87 in both directions.

    Broadway Bridge: alternate to tolled Henry Hudson Bridge.

    These are not the Borden Avenue Bridge or the Carroll St Bridge. They link highways to other highways, or highways to local arterial streets, just like the Brooklyn Bridge or the Queensboro Bridge. What’s more, they are used for toll shopping, which plops through traffic and its concomitant nuisances onto our local streets to save a couple dollars at the tollbooth.

  • rlb

    “These crossings carry city streets between residential neighborhoods. That’s it.”

    Not quite it.
    The Willis avenue and Third avenue bridges get packed with commuters who are either just getting on or off the highways of the south Bronx (generally avoiding Triboro bridge tolls). Together, both four lane one way bridges, they essentially amount to another East river bridge.

  • JamesR

    Chris, right, I understand that MTA has electronic tolling that would allow motorists to proceed through without stopping. The logistical issues still remain; For example, the low-income populations of Marble Hill and Kingsbridge makes heavy use of the dreaded livery cabs to get around, and the cab drivers will doubtlessly have to factor in the toll costs into their fees. Secondly, the only practical way to get across the Broadway Bridge without walking your bike is by riding in the roadway. How will the toll configuration handle cyclists? It’d be nuts to charge cyclists to cross, but does that mean every cyclist ends up getting photographed coming and going on this crossing?

    I supported congestion pricing and would support tolling these crossings as long as it can be done in a way that doesn’t place undue burden on the residents of the neighborhoods on each side of the crossings. The suburbanites and other out of town motorists can be milked for all their worth as far as I’m concerned.

  • spike

    Finally, Espada says something intelligent. Tolling the big bridges across the east river is long overdue. I drive a car and pay a lot of tolls, but even to me, I can’t understand why it is cheaper (free) to drive to manhattan from Queens than to take the subway. It fine to leave the tolls off the harlem bridges for now. Divide and conquer- there is always tomorrow.

  • iSkyscraper

    Jonathan, you are quite right. I was criticizing those who lumped all bridges into one category and in doing so myself over-generalized the Harlem River Bridges. There are layers of subtexts here and it is not entirely easy to make distinctions. For me the litmus test is “would this bridge be used by someone to travel to midtown or downtown at rush hour”? Another test could be “is there a storefront at each end of this bridge without crossing a no-man’s land of asphalt and highway infrastructure?” That would tell you something about the scale of the urban fabric and whether it is geared to cars or not.

    I would agree that Willis Ave and 3rd Ave Bridge are Deegan offramps used by car commuters. They are essentially part of the Triboro complex.

    I don’t know 135th St and 145th St well enough to be sure but these seem more local in their nature and less likely to be used by commuters.

    Macombs Dam Bridge does not realistically connect to the Henry Hudson, unless you are highly tolerant of crosstown traffic. This is in the same category as 135/145.

    Alexander Hamilton and Washington are part of the GW Bridge highway complex and not wee Harlem River local spans. Should the loophole be closed so that you can’t cross these bridges and then get on the Henry Hudson or Harlem River Drive without a toll? Yes.

    University Heights Bridge – a local bridge that connects to I-87, yes, but not for CBD commuting. I seriously doubt many people try using this bridge to get to Harlem River Drive rather than drive farther south first — there is no direct connection and it not easy to do quickly. This is a local bridge carrying heavy local traffic back and forth between the 207th St and Fordham Rd shopping corridors.

    Broadway Bridge – a very local bridge for Inwood and Kingsbridge. Is there toll shopping on this route? I live next to it, so I see the flow of cars, but I’m not sure they are dodging the toll as much as trying to cut northeast into the Bronx. You cannot easily get from the HH Parkway to, say, Bailey Ave. Even if the HH was a free bridge I think traffic would be the same. It’s simply not a parallel route. And it is definitely not a commuter route – would take far too long.

    So, maybe all Harlem River bridges are not the same. Maybe they should all be tolled except for 135, 145, Macombs, 207 and Bway. Maybe only 207 and Bway should be exempt. At some point you have to draw a line around the CBD and say that this is the toll barrier — but it just doesn’t seem that 225th St should be that line. 125th would be more like it – toll the highways and arterials to cross that line as a more logical barrier than the conveniently discrete, but somewhat inconsistent, Harlem River spans.

  • After a more thorough calculation, I now believe that the net revenue (after toll-admin costs) of tolling the East River bridges at $2 in each direction (i.e., $4 per round trip) would be $280 million, not $240M as I told Streetsblog earlier today. I estimate that the tolls would increase traffic speeds by around 3% inside the CBD and by around one-tenth that amount in the approaches to the CBD. Not impressive, of course, but Espada’s announcement is still a positive move, in my book. Anyone wanting to know how I derived my #’s should download the BTA and write me (kea@igc.org) to arrange a quick phone session in which I’ll have you re-set a dozen or so switches in the spreadsheet to match this scenario.

  • J:Lai

    I agree with spike. Get tolls on the big East River bridges now, don’t miss the chance because it doesn’t include the secondary and tertiary bridges.
    Yes, there will be some toll-shopping and traffic distortion in the Bronx and East Harlem/Inwood, but that is tolerable.
    If tolls are placed even on just the “big 4” East River bridges, it will create a badly-needed revenue source, and set the precedent to eventually toll all bridges (possibly with variable rates for different crossings, and different times.)
    I have always thought that some version of congestion pricing which uses the natural barrier of the water surrounding Manhattan would work better than an arbitrary toll line somewhere in midtown.

  • vnm

    Re which bridges across the Harlem River function like neighborhood roads and which function like large highway-level connectors:

    Interestingly enough, the Ravitch Report would have tolled all of the Harlem River Bridges except the one that would raise the most revenue, the Alexander Hamilton Bridge. As part of the Eisenhower Interstate and Defense Highway System, doing so would require Federal approval. That’s a process that doesn’t always go so well, as Pennsylvanians trying to toll I-80 could tell us.

  • vnm

    As far as people arguing that the Broadway Bridge should not be tolled, I’d point out that it is tolled already, but only for people riding the bus or the 1 train. Make a trip from Van Cortlandt Park to City College on the 1 train, and your fare contributes one to two dollars toward the public good, depending on if you have a pay-per-ride MetroCard or an unlimited, how much you use it, etc. Make the same trip in a car and you maybe will have paid 10 cents in gas taxes for that trip? But you will have also emitted carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that society has to pay to clean up somehow. The Broadway Bridge’s toll/fare structure should be reversed.

  • Albert

    If the toll would be done electronically, why would it have to be $2, or any ‘exact change’ amount? Why not make it match what subway/bus riders pay? Drivers would still be getting off easy, since car pooling could defray their cost, while subway riders don’t get to carry a friend on their back for free.

    A $2.25 toll would give a 12.5% increase over the $280M revenue estimate (other things being equal).

  • Bolwerk

    They should get rid of all tolls, and just have a congestion fee.

  • Albert — maybe the $2 figure is left over from the last time tolls were talked about and Espada doesn’t realized that the fare has gone up to $2.25 already.

  • iSkyscraper

    VNM, you are drifting into anti-car ideology as opposed to bridge geopolitics. Your argument for tolling the Broadway Bridge could be applied to any city street with a bus or subway line — why should subway commuters on the 4/5/6 pay $2.25 when a person driving down Lexington Ave pays nothing? The point here is that there are Bridges and there are Bridges, and we are trying to feel out the merits of tolling some or all of them based on who uses them and the effects on revenue and congestion if imposing a toll.

    By the way, I’m arguing against my own interests here just for the sake of rigorous argument so you can actually convince people who are against tolls why they need to be imposed at certain places. Go ahead and toll the Broadway Bridge for all I care; it will only increase the value of my apt because I’ll be inside the bubble. I’ll do worse if tolls appear at, say, 96th St and I’m stuck in not-really-Manhattan-Manhattan.

    I just enjoy thinking about how to apply an argument like a toll around a CBD to the messy New York megaopolis. London’s approach of defining a ring around the core on whatever streets it happens to fall on is more pure of an approach, but in Fortress Manhattan the bridges are too tempting not to think about as chokepoints. Were the Harlem River still flowing past 230th St rather than 225th would we toll the bridge at that point instead? What is the logic other than water = toll?

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