Nadler Revives Fight Against Trucker Giveaway on Verrazano

The lack of an eastbound toll on the Verrazano allows trucks to make a huge loop through the city without paying almost any tolls. Image: Sam Schwartz.
The lack of an eastbound toll on the Verrazano allows trucks to make three major crossings without paying tolls, creating a counterclockwise loop of truck traffic. Image: ##http://www.slideshare.net/streetsblog/decongesting-new-york##Sam Schwartz.##

The one-way tolls on the Verrazano Bridge have been a major cause of truck traffic in New York City since they were instituted in 1986. Though numerous efforts to restore two-way tolls have failed over the last two and a half decades, technological progress may finally bring victory within reach. Congressman Jerry Nadler thinks that the MTA’s moves toward cashless tolling could make two-way tolls politically feasible, and he’s trying to pass the federal legislation necessary to allow them.

The one-way tolls concentrate truck traffic in the city along specific routes and hit some communities — like Chinatown — especially hard. Trucks from New Jersey can drive into Staten Island, cross east on the Verrazano for free, drive up the BQE or Brooklyn local roads to the free Manhattan Bridge, then cross Lower Manhattan and head back to New Jersey for free through the Port Authority’s tunnels, which impose no tolls heading westbound. This long counterclockwise circle can save trucking companies a fortune in tolls, while endangering and clogging up New York City’s streets for everyone else.

“A two-way toll would eliminate the flow of trucks entering New York City via Staten Island in order to escape the charges on the Hudson River bridge and tunnel crossings,” said Nadler, who represents hard-hit Lower Manhattan. “With the MTA now poised to test new toll-collection technologies, which are likely to be implemented across the region, all New Yorkers will reap the benefits and the MTA will generate new revenue that it sorely needs.”

You may be wondering: How did such a senseless policy get enacted in the first place? The answer: Staten Island politics. Residents were sick of the long lines of traffic building up behind the tollbooths on the Staten Island side of the bridge, spewing exhaust near their homes.

In response, Congressman Guy Molinari, with strong support from Senator Al D’Amato, stuck a provision into federal transportation law forbidding two-way tolling across the Verrazano in 1986. Eliminating the eastbound charge meant that tolls only caused back-ups on the bridge itself and in Bay Ridge. The MTA was opposed to the move at the time, and the following year reported increased traffic through Lower Manhattan and millions in lost toll revenue as a result of the switch.

For years, prominent New York politicians have fought to restore two-way tolling. In 1988, Governor Mario Cuomo recommended that two-way tolls be allowed at least for trucks, a move that had the support of Mayor Ed Koch. In 1993, Mayor David Dinkins joined with the Manhattan and Brooklyn borough presidents and the MTA to petition the feds for two-way tolls.

Those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. In 1995, the one-way tolls were actually further entrenched, when the arrangement was codified in a permanent federal law, the National Highway System Designation Act, for the first time.

Attempts to bring back two-way tolls and dam up the river of truck traffic remained something of a regular, if futile, occurrence. Nadler’s predecessor, Ted Weiss, was also a fierce proponent of two-way tolling. And Nadler himself introduced legislation to allow one-way tolls in 1999, 2001 and 2003, according to the Brooklyn Paper.

Nadler thinks the situation might be different this year. The key is cashless tolling, a technology ready for widespread implementation. The MTA recently announced its plans to use cashless tolling for all traffic on the Henry Hudson Bridge by 2012. If traffic doesn’t even have to stop to pay the tolls, Staten Island’s whole objection to eastbound tolls should disappear.

According to a spokesperson for Nadler, the Congressman is working with Transportation Committee chair James Oberstar to determine the right legislative vessel for the Verrazano language. The federal transportation bill, which seems to have new momentum, is one option, he said.

Nadler’s district director Rob Gottheim was at a Manhattan Community Board 2 Tuesday night talking up the plan.

Even with the advent of cashless tolling, however, two-way tolls could still be a heavy lift politically. The unused eastbound tollbooths were recently torn down and at that event, Staten Island Congressman Michael McMahon announced that “it gets rid of the specter of the two-way toll.” And unlike past mayors, Michael Bloomberg doesn’t appear to have ever publicly spoken up in favor of two-way tolls. We have calls in with both McMahon and Bloomberg’s offices to confirm their positions.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Going back to Sam Schwartz’s comments on what to do with the ARC money, the idea that Staten Island is a net contributor in the region’s mass transit network is a fallacy, since its buses and the SIR cover such a small share of their costs.

  • vnm

    The other problem with one-way tolling is that it effectively doubles the rhetorical toll that Staten Islanders can rail against having to pay. Every Staten Island elected official and every letter-writer to the Advance describes an eleven dollar toll when complaining about toll rates on the bridge, while omitting the fact that the bridge is free the other way. (Of course, Staten Island residents actually pay $5.48 with E-ZPass thanks to the S.I. resident discount, or $2.56 if they’re part of a car pool.)

    Of course, the round trip toll is identical on the MTA’s other major crossings, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, Queens-Midtown Tunnel, RFK Bridge, Throgg’s Neck Bridge, Whitestone Bridge. Nobody who regularly uses those bridges or tunnels ever complains about an $11 toll. If it ever comes up, they describe a $5.50 toll. Staten Island residents thereby have a rhetorical advantage against the MTA, and a shared sense of greater burden, that no one else has.

  • jsd

    I’m a Staten Island resident. People here like to consider themselves a conservative lot. Isn’t a part of conservatism paying for what you are using? No such thing as a free lunch and all?

    Many residents here like to talk on and on about entitlement and their tax dollars. No one wants to talk about paying for their parking, or responsible use of the road. No one wants to talk about pegging the gas tax to inflation to pay for crumbling streets. No one wants to talk about paying for the ferry. No one wants to talk about firefighter, police officer, and sanitation worker pensions. No one wants to talk about deferring costs to the next generation. Many, many people want a lot for a little, and don’t give a damn about who (me) is going to pay for it.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “People here like to consider themselves a conservative lot. Isn’t a part of conservatism paying for what you are using? No such thing as a free lunch and all?”

    Do you mean historically, or since 1980?

    Lets just say “conservatism” and “liberalism” ain’t what they used to be.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Let me just follow that up, with what an older Staten Island political activist who was Lindsey’s representative on The Rock said about what Staten Island wanted that administration.

    “The wanted higher wages and pensions” because they worked for the city, “they wanted lower taxes, they wanted more services, they wanted everything! But it worked politically.”

    They were ahead of their time. And when the bill comes due? Every American will be bitter, and every politician despised, until the end of time for delivering the opposite of something for nothing.

  • tom murphy

    I was listening to the SI Boro Prez on WNYC recently. If I remember him correctly he mentioned that his boro had 6% of NYC’s people but 24% of the NYC car registrations. That bridge discount looks very tempting, as well as a cut in you car insurance.
    My son goes to CSI by car across the VN, and everyday it’s $9.14 with EZ PASS. If he attended school here in Brooklyn, daily it would be $4.50 by transit.

  • Not just trucks and not just Chinatown. Plenty of Staten Island drivers clog the streets of Soho and the South Village every day taking advantage of the one way toll. Streets like Broome or Watts are nearly impassable for local traffic during the rush hour.

    Repealing the one-way toll would not only decrease the health risks associated with high levels of exhaust, it would make streets so much more livable for residents, tourists and shoppers whether they’re pedestrians or cyclists.

  • vnm

    Broome and Watts are beyond miserable at times. Two-way tolling on the Holland Tunnel would help as well.

  • Glenn

    Ah the V-N bridge toll. I grew up on Staten Island and this was definitely the third rail of Staten Island politics. Let’s start with a little history. The bridge opened the flood gates to suburbanization just at the time when the automobile was much more affordable and the gasoline to drive it was at historically low prices. Very few people of that generation were native Staten Islanders – in fact, many native Staten Islanders were located on the North Shore which is much more walkable, mass transit friendly and less auto-dependent.

    In the 1980s, the two way toll came to symbolize all the frustrations Staten Islanders had with the traffic congestion from Sprawl and the fact that it was just a commuter suburb with everyone having to pay a toll to leave the island. Even environmentalists joined in the cause of reducing idling waiting to pay the toll.

    Remember at that point, mass transit was no bargain either. Many mass transit commuters were either on expensive Express buses or were in a 3-fare zone of bus to ferry (not yet free) to subway to get to work.

    So Staten Islanders had moved there in search of a cheaper life and found that they were hit with fees every which way they turned and there were no real jobs or local culture as a reason to stay.

    Things are not much different now except that the mass transit situation for commuters taking the ferry is much better – free transfers and free ferry make a commute that way much more affordable. EZ Pass was a boon to motorists who with the incentive of the special discount for local residents should all have EZ-Pass by now. Or those that don’t can’t complain.

    The time seems ripe for using the EZ-PASS as a tool to re-institute two way tolls.

  • Yes the one-way toll on the Holland Tunnel and other Hudson River crossing, is the other arm of the toll-free loop. One little historical detail omitted by Glenn was rezoning of the South Village and Soho to be included in John Marchi’s district. This effectively screwed lower Manhattan for the benefit of Marchi’s Staten Island constituents. So now that Marchi’s gone can we please have our streets back?

  • J B

    If the Verrazano can’t be tolled, do the Holland Tunnel. What good reason could there possibly be for the Holland to be free westbound?
    As for Staten Island, post-Verrazano residents weren’t forced to move there, if they don’t want to pay for tolls to get off the island they shouldn’t have moved there to begin with. Pre-Verrazano residents can’t complain either- would they rather a tolled bridge or no bridge at all?
    Personally I think pro-transit people should call Republicans on the “don’t tax me for their commute” claim. Let’s up the gas tax, toll all the tunnels and bridges to the point where their maintenance is covered and at the same time create an HK-style metro company. Let’s see which is more cost effective then.

  • D.W. Northmore

    I fully support tolling east bound traffic on V-N Bridge. As a Staten Islander I can’t stand the trucks coming through our borough to get to Brooklyn and Manhattan. If Congressman Nadler wants to stop this injustice, by making it cheaper to go through Manhattan, I fully support him.

    Thanks for taking a hit for us Manhattan! Your the best!

  • Westbound tolling on the Holland Tunnel would have to be done with license plate cameras and no slowdown, just like congestion pricing, because Manhattan just doesn’t have the space for toll booths.

  • It is gratifying to see that your blog is addressing this important issue, which it seems to have neglected, but I would like to make some minor corrections and add some factoids.

    First, the issue of removing the reverse one-way toll is not really being ‘revived’ by Nadler. Downtown activists, spearheaded by the SoHo Alliance, have been constantly agitating to have the tolls returned to their original configuration since they went into effect back in 1986.

    Background: The iniquitous toll was not initially sponsored by D’Amato as you stated, but actually by then-governor, Mario Cuomo, as a “six-month experiment” in 1986, prompted by S.I. B.P Republican Guy Molinari. When Cuomo made it permanent, in 1987 the SoHo Alliance sued the MTA in NYS Supreme Court under an Article 78 on environmental grounds, but lost the case unfortunately.

    Btw, this travesty not only affects Chinatown, but also SoHo, TriBeCa, and Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan, as well as northwest Brooklyn, along the BQE in Bay Ridge, Carrol Gardens and Brooklyn Heights.

    The political effort to reverse the toll back to its original status continued on a local basis into the 1990s, until D’Amato then put it permanently into the Federal Transportation Bill, which was unheard of: a local transportation contorversy being made a Federal issue.

    Then-NJ Senator Frank Lautenberg was rumored to oppose D’Amato’s interference, but the Staten Islanders convinced him that the traffic would back up into NJ, anger his constituents and so he backed off.

    We actually traipsed one day over to SI and had a cordial sit-down with Molinari to get a compromise. However, he made it clear that the toll was important to the ego and image of his borough, and he would not change his position.

    Hope was revived in 1998, when Schumer ran against D’Amato. At a SoHo Alliance meeting, Chuck promised he would work to reverse it back to its original configuration, since he opposed the initial reversal when he was a Brooklyn congressman.

    As a result, Schumer got over 80% of the vote in SoHo and TriBeCa, 98% in one election district in SoHo along Canal Street!

    However, within TWO WEEKS of his election, the S.I. Advance reported that Schumer reversed his campaign promise and supported the continuation of the reversed toll, claiming he now represents “all of NYS” (as if voters in Buffalo care about this toll!).
    Perfidy, expediency and treachery are too kind to describe Schumer’s actions.

    As soon as we heard this, Alliance members met with him at his midtown office, reminding him of our strong political support when he needed it. He assured us that, quote, “I don’t f**k my base” and would work to maintain his campaign promise “once the Democrats regained control of Congress”.

    Well, the Dems have had control of Congress for years now and Schumer has done nothing to keep his promise.
    I met him at an event last year and reminded him of his pledge. He got a little startled and, again abrogating his pledge, he told me to talk with his protege, NYS Senator Daniel Squadron, who is working with us on correcting this transit injustice. Has this man no shame?
    Anyway, that’s the back story.

    Finally, one thing you neglected to highlight is that not only does the reversed toll cause congestion and destroys our infrastructure, it also costs the near-bankrupt MTA TENS of millions of dollars in lost revenue annually.

    Those millions that the truckers and other parsimonious drivers avoid could really be used to help mass transit.

    Anything you can do to keep the politians feet to the fire would be appreciated.

  • Lora Tenenbaum

    I think most traffic experts agree that it is a bad idea to deliberately steer through-trucks and cars into central city, but that is precisely what the representatives from Staten Island were able to achieve in 1986. It should never have happened and never have persisted. But it did. Now, with EZ Pass and non-stop toll collection technology, it is time for this idiocy to end.

  • Jeffrey Hymen

    “[T]he issue of removing the reverse one-way toll is not really being ‘revived’ by Nadler.” Revived as in fresh legislation.

  • J:Lai

    Everyone wants to cut govt spending, except for the part that they receive. Everyone wants to raise taxes, except for the ones they pay.

    The bridge toll structure in and around NYC is a perfect example of this (Not just the Verrazano, although it is particularly egregious case.)

  • Lawrence S. White

    EZPass should be able to screen out Staten Island residents from the electronic toll, let them pass free, and charge all others. For those paranoid about EZPass as a surveillance technique, you must pay for your freedom. As for the congestion, why should Brooklyn be the only one to suffer?

  • Andrew

    Why should Staten Island residents pass free?

  • Carl Rosenstein

    So Congressman Nadler is going to do something about the toll. Where was he the last two years when the feeble Dems had 250 seats in the House, 60 seats in the Senate and the Presidency. He claims he will still change the toll structure now with a Republican Congress. That bridge will fall down before that happens.

  • guest

    I am fine with two-way tolling, _IF_ Brooklyn residents get a discount in one direction the same way Staten Islanders currently do.  My wife has to drive from Bay Ridge to New Jersey every day for work, she shouldn’t be punished for having a reverse commute and for not living in SI.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Hello MTA Bailout, So Long Truck Tsunami?

|
The New Jersey "trucker’s special." Graphic: Sam Schwartz. Sheldon Silver’s partial endorsement of the Ravitch Commission’s MTA rescue plan [PDF], which includes East and Harlem River bridge tolls, offers the best political hope in years for reducing the daily truck tsunami pulverizing downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. The truck inundation is due to the great […]

What If There Were Tolls on the BQE?

|
The state Department of Transportation announced yesterday the cancellation of plans to rebuild 5.3 miles of the BQE and the Gowanus Expressway. It wasn’t a new round of freeway revolts that killed these projects but the state’s busted transportation budget. “The economic downturn has affected all areas of government and Transportation is not an exception; […]

Gridlock Sam Offers Four Ideas to Cut Traffic Congestion

|
In today’s Daily News, former New York City Deputy Traffic Commissioner "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz says congestion pricing should "proceed now" and offers four additional ideas for creating a little breathing room on Manhattan’s streets: One way to reduce congestion is to reduce the number of taxis – permanently. I did the math when I was […]

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 […]