Tony Avella and David Weprin Launch Preemptive Attack on NYC Toll Reform

Remember these guys? This morning, State Senator Tony Avella and Assembly Member David Weprin stood at traffic-choked Queensboro Plaza to say they don’t care if the Move NY toll reform plan reduces tolls on bridges near their eastern Queens districts — they refuse to support any proposal that adds tolls to East River crossings. In a bid to preempt any forthcoming effort to fix the region’s dysfunctional road pricing system, they’re introducing legislation in Albany to prohibit charging drivers on city-owned bridges. The gesture is pure theatrics, since NYC already can’t put a price on those bridges without approval from the state.

State Senator Tony Avella and Assembly Member David Weprin oppose a plan that would bring lower tolls to the Throgs Neck and Whitestone Bridges in eastern Queens. Photo: Stephen Miller
State Senator Tony Avella and Assembly Member David Weprin are back promising to keep NYC streets choked with traffic. Photo: Stephen Miller

It’s also a return to form for two of the most outspoken opponents of the 2008 congestion pricing proposal. At that time, Avella and Weprin were in the minority of City Council members who voted against congestion pricing. Now they’re in Albany, and they still don’t want to do anything to fix a tolling system that’s free in the most congested parts of the city and more expensive in outlying areas with worse transit options.

“I’m puzzled as to why they would oppose a plan that would lower by nearly half the tolls on five out of six Queens bridges,” said Alex Matthiessen of Move NY. The Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges, which would see lower tolls under the Move NY plan, are within Avella’s district.

The Move NY plan, put together by “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, works like this: All drivers that enter the Manhattan’s congested core by crossing either the East River or 60th Street would pay a toll, while drivers on bridges linking the other boroughs, where there are fewer transit options, would see their tolls go down. The net result: More funds dedicated to transportation in the region, with the majority of it going to improved transit service.

The argument from Avella and Weprin, who were joined by the Queens Chamber of Commerce and Keep NYC Congestion Tax Free (yes, it still exists), is basically that the Move NY plan is too good to be true. “It sounds nice,” Avella said. “But the proposal will never work in reality.” He claimed that funds generated by the plan could be shifted to non-transportation uses, and that the state could simply revert tolls on the outer-borough crossings to their previous levels without consequence.

Matthiessen called this “a cynical and paranoid viewpoint,” adding that “it would be political suicide for the governor, which controls the MTA, to allow the MTA to simply restore the old high tolls.”

Opponents of the Move NY plan also said that it would have a disproportionate impact on many small businesses that make multiple trips each day between the outer boroughs and Manhattan. “We want this plan to have as minimal an impact on businesses as possible,” Matthiessen said. “We don’t want to penalize those people,” he said, adding that the plan would use E-ZPass information and license plate scanners to only charge commercial drivers once per day, instead of each time they make a crossing.

Sounding an old and discredited theme, Weprin called bridge tolls a regressive tax. In reality, car commuters to Manhattan — including those in Weprin’s and Avella’s own districts — are wealthier than most city residents.

I asked Avella why he was campaigning against the Move NY plan, given that Governor Cuomo said very recently that it won’t be up for consideration in Albany. He said he wanted to halt any discussion of new bridge tolls sooner rather than later. “This is not the way to go,” he said.

Not all the old congestion pricing opponents are lining up against Move NY. “This is vastly different than the Bloomberg congestion pricing plan,” said AAA New York’s John Corlett. “We’re not going to have a knee-jerk reaction against it.”

Avella, for his part, just thinks NYC motorists should get a free ride, period. “I personally believe, and I’m just speaking for myself, there shouldn’t be tolls on any bridges within the city of New York,” Avella said. “It’s discriminatory to charge one person to go from one borough to the other.”

I asked Avella why, then, his bill doesn’t eliminate the subway fare. “That fare is already there,” Avella said. “If you eliminated the subway fare, you would actually increase ridership on mass transit, but the problem is, how do you fund it?”

If only there were some kind of realistic proposal on the table that would generate revenue for transit.

Both legislators fell back on the same proposal NYC legislators always invoke when they want to reassure their constituents that someone else will pay for infrastructure — the commuter tax. Albany killed the commuter tax more than a decade ago, and suburban legislators are unlikely to warm to the idea of its return anytime soon.

Given the dim prospects of the commuter tax, I asked Avella if he had any other transit funding ideas. “Online gambling,” he said.

  • Eric McClure

    “It’s discriminatory to charge one person to go from one borough to the other.”

    Whom do I sue to recoup my subway fares?

  • Voter

    ”I personally believe, and I’m just speaking for myself, there shouldn’t be tolls on any bridges within the city of New York.”

    He’s probably also talking for the AAA. Someone check his campaign donations.

  • Andres Dee

    The “pre-emptive” attack began the day the new plan was floated. Channel 5 news announced that the “Bloomberg’s old congestion pricing plan” was being revived, with no indication that this one was different or that some tolls would come down.

    Count on Dave Weprin to come to the rescue of “the grandmothers from Jamaica Estates who’ll die because of congestion pricing (TM)”. Because unlike other people, “grandmothers from Jamaica Estates” only go to Manhattan to see their doctors. And unlike other people, “grandmothers from Jamaica Estates” drive their own cars to go to Manhattan to see their doctors (of course, not to catch a $150 matinee of “Kinky Boots”, or anything like that. And they’d never take that shmutzy railroad, or God forbid, (spit, spit, spit), the s-s-s-subway. And unlike other people who’ll pay $7 toll, the system will physically block “grandmothers from Jamaica Estates” from getting into Manhattan to see their doctors. We’ll have all these “grandmothers from Jamaica Estates” dying in their cars at Queensboro Plaza (or empty seats at the Hirschfeld). Oy the humanity!

  • Larry Littlefield

    Aren’t these guys part of the hereditary oligarchy? Weprin certainly is. Not sure about Avella. They should be barraged with generational equity inquiries all day long. They represent those dead or in Florida, and have been left behind temporarily to make sure the money keeps flowing out.

  • StepUpAndSaySomething

    Avella and Weprin are some of the better politicians in Queens (though low bar), but they are dead wrong on this issue. Anyone who lives next to a “free bridge” knows the congestion nightmare that chokes their community, making our children sick with the constant exhaust and making our streets more dangerous. Balanced pricing is the only solution and it’s really disappointing that these two feel they need to pander to the shrinking number of motorists.

    No one from Queens drives into Manhattan regularly unless they’re rich, lazy or are driving for a business. The rich people can pay a fair rate, the lazy can’t be helped, and those driving a company truck only pay the toll once per day. Why is this the issue these two are willing to go out on a limb for? Makes them look really dumb for anyone who pays attention. If they wanted a fight to pick, why not put on pressure for the Transit Lock Box? That would help millions of voters.

    The subway fare comparison is the best break for this argument. Right now those rich enough to have cars (and pay the $14 garage fees in Manhattan) get free use of the bridge. But us poor people need to get rate hikes anytime we want to use the subway. The monetary breaks for the 1% need to stop. The rich drew the lines, now you need to decide which side to stand on.

  • Is the subway across/under the river free? No? There’s the argument.

  • Jeff

    These good ideas are going nowhere so long as the only stand on one man’s giant ego, which is larger than an east river bridge. Streetsblog readers should stop whining and start organizing.

    I’m willing to donate my scarce dollars and volunteer, but where’s the organizational leadership?

  • Joseph Concannon

    This is laughable if it wasn’t so damn serious. These two are poster children for Darell, my brother Darell and my other brother Darell….duh, duh and duhher.

    Typical democratic rant: taxes, taxes and oh did I say taxes. You got it NYC elections have consequences and you now have Darell, Darell and his lil bro Darell getting ready to give you a taste of income equality.

    Last time this happened in NYC “ONE MILLION” people ran like all holly hell. Get ready its almost movie time as these elites unload on the working men and women who live, work and want to play in NYC.

    These two “State” offiicals should be taking the MTA and cleaning house along with the NYC Transit. Then get someone in their with some creativity to acknowledge that we need to provide insentives to get people to put down the car keys and take the transit systems. Insentives would not mean higher exclusive fares as has been the history since Darell and Darell have been in office. It means lower fares, improved on time performance and expansion where practical and legal. If Mosses created the Cross Bronx expressway who in NYC will create a model transit system that connects each of our communities so that it pays to put the keys down?

  • Joseph Concannon

    Read carefully and join us at the Queens Village Republican Club. Where we believe….a much smaller and much more effective government is the answer, not a bloated bureaucracy where everyone throws their hands up in the air and gives up only to strike at the heart of liberty by raising taxes. Common sense will at one point kick in, but will it be too late?

  • Kevin Love

    Calvin Coolidge? The guy who presided over The Great Depression?

    Mature adults realise that we do not get good things for nothing. To build a liveable city requires taxes.

    The good news is that walking, cycling and public transit infrastructure is much, much cheaper than car infrastructure. Those who wish for lower government spending should be first in line to call for cuts to car infrastructure spending. Hypocrites!

  • Joe R.

    I used to vote mainly Republican, at least until the party went off the deep end. While I agree to an extent that raising taxes all the time to fund an inefficient public sector is a tyranny of sorts, so is the 30-year old movement to privatize everything. And while we’re at it, the race to the bottom in terms of tax rates isn’t a great idea, either. You need to strike a happy medium as far as taxes go. Those who have the money should pay their fair share because they benefit from public investment more that the average person. For example, taxes fund transit which gets their workers to work, education which enables their workers to do their jobs, health care which keeps their workers from going bankrupt in the event of a serious illness, etc. The educated, healthy workers in turn allow the wealthy business owners to make more money. It’s only fair to ask that the business owner pay taxes to adequately fund necessary public institutions. For their part, these institutions should have oversight to ensure that the run as efficiently as possible.

    We’ve seen over the last 3 decades that privatization isn’t the panacea of efficiency we thought. Corporations can and do engage in wasteful spending. They just call it executive compensation or fringe benefits or profits or shareholder returns. Either way, whether through bloated union contracts or the methods just mentioned, the money paid for a good or service ends up being spent on something else. I could argue that government is often inherently more efficient than private industry because there is no need to earn a profit while delivering a good or service.

    Very low taxes which starve basic services are good for nobody. Look at countries with very low taxes. The wealthy often need to live in gated compounds and have bodyguards.

  • Joseph Concannon

    Kevin,

    Taxes are necessary. You are 100% correct. Fire, Police, EMS, etc…..keeping agencies focused on their mission and no mission creep is A-OKAY with me.

    But transportation was once a private enterprise and I’m thinking maybe we should experiment with another private sector effort and see if the public sector can compete. We have a vastly diverse population and the need is here. We too as a people like to move around and should be able to do with a modern transit system. Ours is old and stale and much too costly, never on time, noisy, poluting our air and corrupting our government with endless hires which are unnecessary.

    We need competition to learn what the possiblities might be. It is only too apparent that the government isn’t up it.

    Darell, Darell and Darell never look to cut taxes and force agencies to justify their expenses and purchases. They just want to add to the already overbearing tax base. At some point it is not going to be worth going to work b/c the government is going to tax us so deeply that we will lack the motivation to work anymore.

    Maybe a modelrail system is what we need….maybe we need a trolly system. What I do know is that our current system is not sufficent and not serving our needs nor is it something to take us into the future.

  • Joseph Concannon

    I have a republican shovel ready job for our President, put on display in vastly diverse NYC examples of different transportation systems. While bicycles, walking are options its just not realistic for ALL of our needs. It does serve some needs. Its snowing today in NYC and walking, bikes are just not realistic. But we need Americans to look at all not just some of the alternatives.

    Let’s see if some of these alternatives can work in the densely populated five boroughs of NY. Open up ideas, creativity and all with holding budgets in place. Novel idea….not really. Just some common sense.

  • Joseph Concannon

    Joe R,

    I’m just not sure that you completely understand the implications of your suggestion to tax, tax, tax those awful, evil rich people.

    Former candidate for Governor Carl Paladino
    cites that he is one of the so called 1%. Governor Cuomo who would like “Fairness” raised his taxes to get increased revenue for the state b/c the lil guy better known as those of us working 40 hours a week to survive shouldn’t have to pay for the states increased tax liability.

    Taxes go up on the rich. What do they do? They push their money/wealth where it can make the most for them. So they plant their wealth in a state like Florida with no state tax. All the money (paper) leaves NYS and goes to Florida. Thus Mr Paladino no longer has a tax liability in NYS, he still lives here, works here and plays here, but he travels to Florida six times a year to complete his liability to comply with law in that state.

    Joe R my point is NYS just lost thousands if not millions of dollars do to Paladino shuffling his funds around. Paladino picks up tax relief from planting his wealth in another state. What does NYS get out of this? ZIPPO, ZERO. Except that now the workers in NYS have to make up for that tax revenue lost b/c Cuomo wanted to make a pity point and get some votes. Its costing us millions with these guys in office. No telling how many workers, working 40 weeks will be needed to make up Paladino’s move but let’s say its 1000 working taxpayers, what if two or three billionaires decide to do this. We the worker will pay the price, NO????

  • Joe R.

    The situation you describe is a problem, but it’s not a problem of New York’s making. If other states choose to neglect their public sector with a race to the bottom on taxes, sooner or later these states will be uncompetitive. The issue here isn’t high taxes, but the perception by those paying them that they’re not getting their money’s worth. NYS needs to work on that, perhaps by aiming for more efficiency in the the public sector. We’ve literally given away the store far too many times in our union contract negotiations. We can also help perception by pointing out the conditions in low tax states. Sure, you pay less taxes, but you get less for your money. Florida is a perfect example. It’s mostly a third-world sh*thole because of lack of investment in the public sector. What does a millionaire moving there get? Incompetent workers, a huge illegal alien problem, high transportation costs, high crime, and a bunch of other no so great things. Add in the oppressive heat and humidity. Florida is a place you couldn’t pay me to move to.

    Anyway, sure, we’ll get some millionaires like Paladino moving but who cares? There will be others, especially from other countries where the tax rates in NYC/NYS seem low by comparison, who will be all too eager to take their place. The fact that many people are willing to pay very high housing costs and higher taxes to live in NYS shows we don’t have as big a problem as you mention.

    On another note, this race to bottom on taxes largely exists because of 30 years of federal policy. When federal taxes were higher, states received larger aid packages, and as a result could keep state/local taxes lower. Arguably no state or locality should have an income tax. The high tax burden should be at the federal level. There should also be measures in place to prevent hiding wealth in overseas accounts. If we do these things, there will be little or no tax shopping by millionaires. The only way they could significant lower their tax burden would be to give up their US citizenship and move to a low-tax country like Zimbabwe. I somehow doubt many would be willing to do that.

    On a final note, I actually favor a national sales tax over an income tax. I also think a wealth tax is a good idea which should be looked at. If you tax away a certain percentage of a person’s net worth over, say, $10 million, they will be incented to invest that in enterprises which give more than enough returns to offset the tax. Now they can just sock the money in offshore accounts where it does little good except to add zeros to their net worth.

  • Joe R.

    Enclosed, grade-separated bikeways negate the weather issues you mentioned. Sure, it’s a bigger investment than on-street bike lanes but still a pittance compared to building new subway lines. Also, new aerodynamic human-powered machines are capable of much higher speeds than conventional bikes (as high as ~65 kph at present state-of-the art). Combine this with the bikeways, and you can have average speeds rivaling rail at a fraction of the cost.

  • Joseph Concannon

    Detroit … is that perception or reality? Philidelphia is that perception or reality? Should I go on…..?

    I will agree we should start fresh with zero based budgeting in NYS and make every unit of government justify its need that is core to their mission. That I would agree and I’d be willing to bet that perception would turn into reality very quickly. Why, mission creep and agencies going way beyond the scope initially setup for them.

    NYS is responsible for its own tax policy and we don’t have a value for the dollar problem we have a virus, an insane infection with spending too much! Look what brought us to this discussion in the first place. A wasteful, old, stale, 100 year old transit system. We can do better and we should do better. I’d be willing to bet that without firing, laying off one employee or slashing the MTA budget we could fashion a new system…..I’d bet the same thing for NYC Transit.

    The regional plan association used to take a hard look at these issues and I’m not sure what happened to them or if they are around any more. But we need big thinkers who put NY first and not some union, special interest group. Its exciting, facinating to imagine what our kids kids might do with transportation in NYC some day in the future.

    For years NYS has gotten the shaft from the feds when it comes from dollar for dollar investment and yes we continue to get the shaft when it comes to tax dollar revenue from NYS and what we get back in real dollars and investment. No disagreement.

    But in the end. NYS stands alone. We have no one to blame but ourselves. It is our government officials we elect the most corrupt government in the United States yes right here in NYS. 35 officials indicted, charged and convicted and the others like Charles Rangle that tip toe off the feds most likely to be arrested list. We the voters and not some other state, city or nation are responsible. Take a look in the mirror NYS it is all of us here in the Empire State that have only ourselves to blame.

  • Joseph Concannon

    It is this type of thinking and others that will be the cause for future innovation. We have a massive population willing to do different things and who in kind would like it to work with the environment if at all economically possible.

    NYC is a laboratory…. a fascinating and wonderfully delightful laboratory with people from over 150 different cultures and backgrounds. Why not put them to work and create, innovate and compete with the worn out ideas of old?

    This is what our elected officials should be steering us to a future filled with the amazing, fascinating and exciting ideas for building a stronger NY. Follow the Queen Village Republican Club where we are paving the road to fresh ideas, not holding on to the old ball and chain of years past.

    New York can do better. Dare to follow us, NYS the GOP of new is calling…..drivers wanted!

  • Mfs

    Ridersny.org

  • Daniel

    Am I correct in thinking the city has the city can ban motor vehicles on any roadway or bridge? Presumably we can save money on bridge mantenance by simply removing the vehicles from them that cause all the wear and tear. Then we can raise the funds by charging more per crossing on the tunnels that remain. With suffiently high tolls it will alleviate the congestion too!

  • vnm

    Exactly!! Look at the Manhattan Bridge. Do the right thing for the rest of society and ride the train or bus over it? The government charges you $2.50. But if you want to put pollution in the air, congest the streets with your big motor vehicle, and put others at risk by driving it into a busy pedestrian area, the government lets you do that for free. It makes no sense! But this situation is worse! The people the government is charging tend to have lower incomes than the people getting the free ride!! Weprin and Avella should be embarrassed for perpetuating this classist dysfunction.

  • Guest

    “It’s discriminatory to charge one person to go from one borough to the other.”

  • Jeff

    Yeah, they’re not calling for any of this. At least not publicly.

  • Charles_Siegel

    A good reason to raise *federal* taxes on the very rich.

  • JK

    So, Avella’s reasoning is we can’t have free transit because we can’t afford it. But, we can afford free East River and other city bridges that cost billions to rebuild and tens of millions to maintain. (And no, Mr Avella, city and state gas taxes don’t come close to covering the cost of motoring infrastructure.)

  • JoshNY

    “It’s discriminatory to charge one person to go from one borough to the other.”

    We’re not talking about charging the PERSON to go from one borough to the other. The person can walk across the pedestrian paths on any of the bridges for free, just like always. We’re talking about charging the CAR to go from one borough to the other.

  • qrt145

    In olden times, even pedestrians had to pay tolls to cross the George Washinton Bridge! I don’t know about the other bridges.

    While I don’t think people should have to pay to use basic infrastructure, I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of reason. It’s really just a matter of convention that bridges are free while ferries are (usually) not. Both cost plenty of money to operate.

  • JoshNY

    Fair enough. I’m just pointing out that it’s bullshit of Avella, Weprin et al. to frame it as charging people to go from one borough to another.

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