Are East River Bridge Tolls the Better Way to Go?

Writing for the Brooklyn Rail, Carolyn Konheim overviews the legacy of "Tammany-style" former Brooklyn Democratic leader Meade Esposito, and posits that the deceased "capo di tutti capi in New York politics" still exerts influence on city transportation policy.

Konheim, who is a proponent of tolling the East River bridges, argues that Esposito’s record of protecting motorist privilege eventually led to what she calls "an unnecessarily costly structure of Mayor Bloomberg’s otherwise crucial initiative to get New Yorkers out of their cars and onto better subways and buses."

196052319_81c7d56b16.jpgThe Mayor’s congestion pricing brain trust, including purveyors of high-tech traffic detection, saw in London’s on-street charging system a way to make an end-run around what they saw as the lingering Meade mindset regarding bridge tolls. Ignoring the recent comprehensive studies about the effectiveness of various scenarios of tolling the free bridges, the mayoral team proposed a charging system entirely in Manhattan that had a single political benefit.

For years, planners have advocated a London-style cordon, which would run across the 60th Street boundary of the Manhattan Central Business District, river to river, and impose tolls at all river crossings leading to the CBD. Instead, the Mayor’s plan calls for thousands of camera and E-ZPass monitors at hundreds of sites around and within the charging zone. The internal charging stations are intended to charge car trips that begin and end within the zone a fee of $4 per day, and charge trucks $21.

When the Deputy Mayor of London was told about charging intrazone fees, she said, "It’s complicated enough with a single cordon. Why would you want to do that?" Whereas London only charges residents of the charging zone a 10% fee on re-entry and trucks the same as cars, the Mayor’s plan banks heavily on intrazone trips for revenues. Without any explanatory data, it’s difficult to discern if the forecasts account for the more than a third of intra-zonal trips that are by taxis or livery vehicles and would be exempt from any fee. Most of all, there is no accounting for the cost of operating a network of multiple charging cordons, which will surely exceed the 42% collection and enforcement cost of London’s single cordon system, possibly adding up to more than half of gross revenues.

The bottom line is that an unnecessarily elaborate congestion charging network will reduce revenues for transit to about $250 million a year. In contrast, installing E-ZPass monitors on the four free bridges and across 60th Street would likely net more than $500 million a year for transit and more reliably garner the desired benefits in reduced congestion and faster commutes. These revenues would increase as MTA tolls increased and could be dedicated to improving transit service, not keeping transit afloat.

Can the need to circumvent Meade Esposito’s legacy be worth the loss of $2.5 billion over a decade in revenues for transit? Or will the fact-finding process over the coming months reveal what makes a pricing system that equalizes tolls on all entries so effective: it benefits motorists with faster travel everywhere; it provides transit riders with the most revenue for transit; and it boosts local economies by freeing up road space for drivers with local destinations.

NYC Director of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability Rohit Aggarwala discussed why the city decided not to propose tolling the East River bridges in part two of our interview series.

The 2003 analysis of bridge tolls by the "two-man team" mentioned in Konheim’s article is available here (PDF).

Photo: Docman/Flickr

  • ddartley

    Good post–helps prevent Groupthink, to which ALL us humans (even us enlightened “liveable streets” types) are unfortunately susceptible: like, if this points out a really lousy flaw in the Mayor’s plan, well, too bad–CP supporters need to hear it, and should not, in any zeal, stifle discussion of it in order to help a long a flawed scheme!

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I agree with Konheim’s analysis, and I support her plan. However, if nobody in government has the will to pass it, I also support the Mayor’s plan.

  • JK

    Misleading headline. Better would be 60th street cordon plus East River tolls a better way?

    It really boils down to politics and what is more palatable and I think City Hall is right.
    A cordon is cheaper than zone pricing, but I think pricing is politically doomed if the zone proposal is displaced by bridge tolls.

    Less important, having three entities determine the price to enter Manhattan (MTA, Port, NYC) vs. essentially one, NYC, seems a recipe for continued traffic diversions and irrationalities as the tollers fight to maximize revenue.

  • Bronxite

    Leave out the Harlem River bridges and then watch the congestion build up there.

  • Johnny Walker

    Tolling the East River Bridges is a not politically a heavy lift as CP.

  • Dave

    Toll the East (and Harlem) River bridges, introduce CP south of 86th, and introduce permit parking city-wide and then you’ll see some real benefits.
    Just introducing CP will not be enough as the price to drive in, pay the $8 and park free on the streets is still less than a cab ride into the zone and only twice the (undiscounted) subway fare.
    Add a toll to the mix (or should I say put tolls back on the bridges and even things out with those driving in from NJ) and force people to pay parking garage rates and then you might actually change behavior.

  • A Manhattan Central Business District cordon toll, including a toll across 60th Street would be for less costly to operate. It is also important for motorists to know where the boundaries of the tolled cordon are, so they can make rational choices about crosssing them.

  • Felix

    Why is CP so costly – isn’t it because of the cost of monitoring traffic that originates within the zone? I think someone on this blog once suggested replacing that aspect of the plan with permit parking for zone residents and not trying to charge them for their trips.

    George, why is it cheaper operate a a 60th St. cordon?

  • Dave

    I think George is saying that putting a cordon of readers across 60th street is much simpler than installing monitors inside the zone to also charge those of us who live within the CP zone.
    As you guess I live well within the CP zone and I think the thought that those of us within the CP zone will drive more around the city if we are not charged is ludicrous. Why would we want to fight traffic and where would we park?

    Sure there are the SUV-mommies driving to drop the kids at school and other issues, but the vast majortiy of my neighbors who live in the CP zone and have cars either use them to reverse commute (look at transit schedules and you will see it is VERY tough to commute FROM Manhattan) or on weekends.
    So yes. let’s drop the inanity of tolls within the CP zone (not done in Oslo, London as far as I know) and save money either by only tolling the East and Harlem river bridges or by tolling a 60th St (or sonething similar) cordon…

  • Hilary

    I imagine that the infrastructure plus the signs are not exactly elegant appointments for the cordon street. This may have something to do with the choice of the already fairly commercial 86th Street over 60th. That’s assuming that DOT cares about aesthetics, of course.

  • Chris H

    Two things,

    First, I would hesitate to speculate on the costs without having any data to back up any assertions. Maybe it will cost significantly more, maybe it won’t. The cost for much of the necessary equipment is relatively low because they can be made from more commodity parts (i.e. cameras, RFID readers, etc). The cost of processing data from 20 cameras vs. 2000 cameras is marginal because computing power is so cheap.

    I am not saying one way or another. I think it would be best to ask for the data that PlaNYC has used and check to see if it is accurate. Raising unsubstantiated claims is at best counter productive or worse, FUD.

    Secondly, I think that it is interesting that the line is at 86th st but the first FDR to Henry Hudson crossing is at 96th street. I wonder if this was to help spread out traffic along the cross streets in the charged zone by raising the opportunity cost by having to go ten more blocks gives less incentive to cross out of charge zone city blocks as well as having fewer Bronx/Westchester drivers stop at the same street as crosstown traffic if they want to avoid the charge zone.

  • Punctuation Matters

    Chris H, I think you are trying to make an interesting point but have written so incoherently that it’s unintelligible. I see it was written at 3 am.. Please try again. Thanks.

  • Chris H

    Wow I just re-read my third paragraph and realized it only had two sentences. I’ll try that one again…

    The first FDR to Henry Hudson crosstown street is 96th st. This is due to the fact that it is where the first full interchange is on both highways above the charge zone. It is also the first traverse through central park that does not require going into the charge zone (the 86th st traverse will put you on 84th or 85th). Now I doubt there will be the “wall” effect where people going to midtown/downtown will park and take the subway, but I imagine that people going to the UES/UWS above 86th will try and avoid going to the charge zone when looking for a place to park creating a small zone of higher congestion (a “small wall”) around 86th.

    By having the cross town route at 96th, the congestion would be mitigated by having the “small wall” 10 blocks away.

    Also, by having the first non charged cross town route at 96th, there is a higher opportunity cost for shunpiking (4.6 miles) for the 59th bridge. It would be worth it to some to save $2 bucks if you are going to NJ, for others it won’t. This should even out the trans Manhattan traffic to a degree.

  • Chris H

    And I guess my main point about cost is this: It does not necessarily scale linearly. There are some costs that scale linearly (i.e. cameras) while there are others (i.e. computer processing power) that have a very low marginal cost.

  • The use of 96th Street as a bypass could occur as well with a 60th Street cordon. Most of the traffic filtering through the Upper East and West Sides is headed to or from the CBD south of 60th St. The premise of moving the cordon to 86th Street to avoid a pile up of parkers just north of 60th St stretches credulity. Who drives to Bloomingdale’s? They don’t even drive to the Home Depot at 59th St. Everyone knows there are only a few gold-plated parking places there. The Lincoln Center traffic that Rit is seeking to avoid occurs largely after the end of the pricing period and the hospitals above 60th St that are cited as other reasons for the line at 86th Street draw people in cars for the very reasons he said in his interview today that taxis serve a public purpose. As for doctors driving, a fee would be meaningless and hospitals would probably have to pay it to keep nurses who work 12-hour shifts. Manhattan travel patterns confirm that PARKING PRICING AND AVAILABILITY are the biggest factor in why people drive. If the city wants to control the 50% of trips they contend are INTRA-zone (which are mainly between 61st St and 86th St.), they can do so far more cost-effectively with London-style controls on virtually all curb space that prohibits parking for more than two hours and charges about $10 an hour for even those limited spaces. The fact is the city has not shown us WHO they think are driving (outside of fee-exempt taxis) to warrant a system so costly to administer and enforce that it eats up half the revenues which are desperately needed for transit.

  • Chris H

    I didn’t say that there would be a pile up at 60th street. What I said there would be a higher than average congestion right outside the charge zone from people going to the area above the charge zone. It would not be the amount of congestion that many of the anti-CP fear mongers have suggested and I think that traffic volume overall in that area would be lower because there would be less through traffic. It does not “stretch credulity,” however, to see that there would be a higher traffic concentration above the charge zone by people avoiding the charge.

    By tolling all the other crossings but having the cordon, it sends a slightly schizophrenic message. Tolling the ER bridges sends the message that the city is charging for either the bridges themselves or the privilege of entering Manhattan itself. The cordon says to people from the north that they are paying for the use of CBD streets. By using a charge zone instead, however, everyone is paying for one thing: CBD streets. You may disagree, but I think that this should be the message.

    You can say that the city has not given out enough information. I think that’s fair. What’s not is to make assertions about the cost of the system without having real evidence. You can say “It seems that half of the revenue will be eaten up by the charge” but you can’t assert “half of the revenue will be eaten up by the charge.” Unsubstantiated assertions have been the most frequently used weapon yielded by C.P. opponents.

    Also, as far as livery vehicles are concerned. Radio cars would be exempted but “black cars” and limos would not. How the distinction will be made I am not sure but that’s what Rit said in the article today.

  • Theatergoer

    I’m surprised we haven’t heard from the restaurant industry – especially in the theater and Lincoln Center district. There won’t be time to drive into the zone after 6 and have dinner before a performance. Except for people from New Jersey, for whom it will only cost $2. Expect more eating during performances.

  • Chris H

    In addition, I think that most people’s claims that they live in the NYC metro area and lack public transit to the CBD are bogus (I’m looking at you, Rockland). Public transit to other areas outside the CBD, however, is usually not so good. One of the reasons that C.P. (very much likely) will work is that there is an abundance of transit options to get to midtown. To get from LI to NJ, however, they are much more limited and there are less opportunities for mode-shifting. Also, if the point is the remove cars from the streets of the CBD, why would it cost more to go from Brooklyn-NJ using the FDR/West Side Highway (under a ER tolling plan) than go from either of those places to the CBD.

    This would probably result in a lower traffic load for the FDR/West Side Highway but a higher traffic load on the Trans-Manhattan Expressway.

  • steve

    Who knows what a “radio car” is and what makes it different than a livery?

  • Chris–Hi! Didn’t realize you were the NYCDOT commentator. In reply to your points;
    1) You can’t have it both ways. If you move the northern boundary from 60th to 86th St to avoid a “higher concentration” of people near 60th St avoiding the fee, you can’t argue that a higher concentration would not occur around 86th St., where there is some hope of parking on-street and off-street parking costs less.

    2)Yes, I think the premise of the charge should be less on the functioning of CBD streets than on pricing limited capacity by time and road space. The choke points are the river crossings and the highways that feed the CBD roads. Charging on Manhattan streets is what conveys a message of privilege to enter Manhattan (or for residents to leave–even when they are traveling in the off-peak direction, where there is spare capacity.)

    3)As for estimating that operating a vast grid would consume half the revenue, I’ve always said, “based on London’s cost (42%) for operating a far simpler system than proposed for NYC..” Please provide some documented estimates. The numbers provided to the Assembly based on auto ownership by county did not account for where your model should show that CBD drivers are actually coming from and the effect of deducting existing tolls.

    I’m glad to know NYCDOT is listening.

  • Chris H

    “Didn’t realize you were the NYCDOT commentator” Pure ad hominem.

    I have nothing to do with NYCDOT so stop using the association fallacy ( Just because I disagree with you and I think that the proposal has merits that you are overlooking arguments does not mean I work for NYCDOT.

    1. I said that the higher concentration around 86th street would be separate from the crosstown traffic at 96th street. I don’t understand what I “can’t have both ways” about. There would be less overall (north-south) through traffic because more areas would be located within the charge zone than 60th street and less overall n/s through traffic with either choice because of the charge.

    2. The concept is that you are charging for a highly sought after good, the use of CBD streets for private motor vehicles. Tolling the ER bridges for many people is seen as charging for the privilege of entering Manhattan itself. People entering from the north using a cordon, OTOH, would be charged for the use of Midtown to Lower Manhattan only. Using the bridge tolls and the cordon would create a larger perceived imbalance. Someone from Brooklyn or Queens would have to pay the charge or use the tolled Triboro, Whitestone, Throgs Neck or Verazano to access NJ, while people from above 60th street and in the Bronx would not. Having some circumferential options for through traffic is one of the things that makes London work. If people are already going to be paying the toll whether they choose city streets or highway, there is less of an incentive to avoid city streets and the congestion on those streets is more likely to stay at equilibrium.

    You give someone the choice of a free route or a tolled route many will tend toward a free route even if there is more traffic because the opportunity cost does not outweigh the monetary cost. If the monetary cost is the same for both options, the only disincentives for using city streets vs highways are:
    a) Opportunity costs from slower speeds due to lower speed limits, traffic lights, etc.
    b) Opportunity cost due to traffic.

    Now if you take someone going from the Williamsburg bridge to the Holland Tunnel, without traffic, it takes less time to go along Delancy and Canal than detour to the FDR. The opportunity cost for taking city streets will only become higher to create diversions when congestion limits demand.

    3) Since I don’t work for NYCDOT, I don’t have the data that you have requested. It might exist publicly, it might not. I haven’t had the time to find it myself.

    I think its intellectually dishonest to say because the simpler system in London has operating costs eating up 42% of the revenue that the more complex system proposed for here will automatically have a higher operating to revenue ratio. You are making the assumption that all costs scale equally. They do not. As I noted before, the computer processing power required to process 20 cameras vs. 2000 cameras (or 20,000 for PlaNYC) does not cost 100 (or 1000) times more in capital expenses and certainly does not cost anywhere close to that in operating costs (you don’t have to hire 1,000 IT specialists to administer the system).

    Same goes with violations processing (one of the highest costs in the London system). I am not saying that this will scale more or less than under the London system, but to make the assumption that it would without citing evidence is dishonest.

    Also, lets look at the reason why London had a lower than estimated ratio. They had more diversions to transit and circumventions than expected. Will that happen here? I don’t know but neither does anyone else. To do so, at this point, without evidence, is making unsubstantiated assertions.

    I love to discuss and debate these issues, but using ad hominem and red herring is really childish.

  • Bystander

    With all the unknowns you acknowledge, Chris H (NYMTC??), it only makes sense to do an EIS.

  • Chris H

    An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), AFAICT, would not be required for determining the cost of the system/revenue of the system. Other types of studies but not an EIS.

    I am not sure if the project itself needs an EIS. It may or may not but EIS processes are pretty long so it would be at least longer than march so not doing an EIS would not jeopardize the money because there is no time to do an EIS.

    And I don’t work for the city, state or federal government, nor any agencies, quasi governmental agencies or authorities associated with them. And I have no current or pending future contracts them either. Cut it with the ad hominem!

  • Chris H

    Actually I don’t think that an EIS is required. From what I can tell, it is only required when the federal government takes an action or through a program that is funded by a federal agency. Because USDOT is funding only the bus enhancements and planning for congestion pricing but not for the implementation itself, I don’t think the requirement applies.

  • mike

    Chris – I would think that SEQRA and CEQR (as opposed to NEPA) dictate that any state- or city-initiated project is subject to the environmental review process. Too bad the EAS/EIS process is so flawed.

  • JK

    I somehow didn’t fully absorb Carolyn’s fundamental argument the first time I read this. Which is: $250mil in additional revenue politically trumps any additional opposition to pricing caused by tolling bridges instead of streets. Her argument would be politically stronger still if that additional $250mil was used to forestall a fare hike in a direct quid pro quo in which politicians told New Yorkers that tolls=no fare hike. This is probably the only political formula with a chance.

    PlanNYC 2030 says congestion pricing nets $360mil in revenue, Carolyn says $250mil and Brodsky says less. This is a very important question.


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