Toll-Free Bridges Already “Tough” on South Bronx and Upper Manhattan

sobrograb.jpgThe red lines show southbound routes through the South Bronx via the "free" Third Ave. Bridge and the tolled Triborough. The blue line charts the toll-free northbound route from the FDR across the Willis Avenue Bridge.

All the gnashing of teeth over East River bridge tolls has for the most part drowned out discussion of the Ravitch Commission’s proposal to charge motorists for Harlem River crossings as well. Though the tolls would be substantially lower — matching the (currently) $2 transit base fare — it’s still too much for two officials from the Bronx and Upper Manhattan.

From Thursday’s Daily News, reporting on Richard Ravitch’s testimony to state Assembly members:

At Wednesday’s hearing, Assemblymen Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan) and Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) worried about the impact tolls would have on constituents already struggling to make ends meet.

"As a legislator from the Bronx, you have to understand that the tolling of the bridges is a tough one," Heastie said.

Ravitch agreed, but said drivers would see significant improvements, including expanded bus service so they could consider ditching their cars, less traffic as drivers switch to mass transit and less pollution.

The commission also recommended discounts for drivers not crossing during rush hours, he said.

Not exactly fire-and-brimstone oratory from the Assemblymen, to be sure. Still, Espaillat and Heastie, both of whom backed congestion pricing, know that hundreds of thousands of their constituents are "already struggling to make ends meet" while paying up to $4 each workday for round-trip transit service — service that will suffer without new MTA revenue streams. Bronx Democratic boss Heastie must also know that "free" Harlem River bridges are an invitation to suburban drivers to trek through his borough.

After the jump, thoughts from a South Bronxite tipster on the plague of the toll-shoppers.

If you live in Connecticut or eastern Westchester County, and you want
to get to Manhattan, you would have to be an idiot to pay the $4.15 or
$5 Triborough toll. Every Fairfield County
resident knows that it is just as easy to take the free Third Avenue
Bridge into town and the free Willis Avenue Bridge back home.

The only cost of their free ride is borne by the low-income,
minority communities of the South Bronx. East 135th Street might as
well be an interstate highway with traffic lights. If you stood for a while in the playground of P.S. 154, between
Alexander and Willis, or at the soot-stained ramp to the Third Avenue
Bridge, you’d see
more than a few toll-shopping Connecticut-plated vehicles.

Why would Bronx politicians allow their borough to be the doormat
for wealthy Connecticut drivers?  Not to mention, of course, that
over-reliance on the automobile was a major contributor to the 1970s and 80s depopulation of the Bronx, and the arson, crime and mayhem that
gave the borough a frightening reputation, spurring further
suburbanization and asthma-causing through traffic.

As for Upper Manhattan, Espaillat’s position is especially surprising, given his particularly outspoken support of  pricing. Harlem River bridges have been all the rage on the Inwood and Washington Heights Livable Streets discussion board as of late, with members debating whether a $2 charge on the Broadway Bridge would "divide" Inwood or deter toll-averse motorists, locals and commuters alike, from clogging neighborhood streets.

  • Marty Barfowitz

    My aunt from Westchester always reminded us to use the Third and Willis Bridges when driving between her house and New York City. She seemed to feel that the tolled Triboro Bridge was for suckers or tourists or thru-travelers who didn’t know any better.

    My aunt’s family had plenty of money to pay for a bridge toll. And they lived right next to a Metro-North station that could have taken them into the city in pretty good time. But the free bridges practically begged them to drive into the city EVERY DAY even though the traffic on the approaches to the bridges was a disaster. But, hey, who’s worried about traffic when you’re sitting inside a $60,000 leather-seated Mercedes and the delay only makes it so that you have a little extra personal time and a little less time at home with your INSANE family up in Westchester?

    Bronx politicians are just completely out of their minds to continue to support this. The free bridges are primarily a benefit to Westchester car commuters and largely a detriment to Bronx residents.

  • Pete

    It’s not just those from CT and Westchester going into Manhattan – I’m extremely guilty of this as well, living in Brooklyn. The only time I pay the TB bridge toll is when I know the FDR will be a disaster. Otherwise, it’s cheaper (even factoring distance differences) to head upstate via Manhattan and the free bridges than it is to take the Triboro. I’d bet most of Brooklyn (and even parts of Queens near the 59th street bridge) behaves similarly.

    I wonder if anyone here has a background in behavioral finance – I wouldn’t be surprised if it came out that people will go out of their way to avoid tolls to the degree they’re actually paying more to avoid the toll than pay for it.

  • lee

    i know people who, from midtown west, would take the brooklyn bridge to the bqe to the lie when heading to long island rather than paying the toll at the midtown tunnel. that route has to add about 20 mins at least to your trip. but you “save” $4

  • Pete

    A follow-up. My sister and I will be headed to Westchester for Christmas this year, and we’ll be taking Metro-North. 2 round-trip tickets on the train ($26), plus the $8 in subway rides to and from Grand Central will cost far more than driving would have. Will also be a lot more time-consuming, and a lot less convenient.

    Getting more people out of their cars will be difficult as long as these issues persist – it can be more expensive, or less convenient, but not both.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “I’m extremely guilty of this as well, living in Brooklyn. The only time I pay the TB bridge toll is when I know the FDR will be a disaster. Otherwise, it’s cheaper (even factoring distance differences) to head upstate via Manhattan and the free bridges than it is to take the Triboro.”

    Me too. Haven’t been on the Triboro in years, although the relative congestion of the BQE and FDR during the times I drive (generally weekends) is also a factor.

    But more to the point for Brooklyn, if tolls were equal I would never drive through Downtown Brooklyn to get to Manhattan and points north and west. I would always take the BBT, the most direct route. Those who think tolls would add to traffic in Downtown Brooklyn are mistaken.

  • rlb

    Working smack in the middle of the area described, I am compelled to suggest an augmentation to your map.
    There are several approaches to the Third avenue bridge. While highway like 135th st. is probably the most egregious, Bruckner Blvd between Willis and the bridge is completely filled with cars every day. The abundance of cars transforms the neighborhood from a little desolate to kind of dismal.
    I was excited by the prospects of Congestion Pricing reducing the ‘local’ traffic approach to the 3rd avenue bridge. This little toll probably wouldn’t have the same effect.

  • JJ

    If the city wants to charge tolls on the East River bridges, they should charge $10, matching the insanely overpriced toll for the Verrazano Narrows Bridge toll. All the boroughs should feel the misery.

  • I got an email from Espaillat’s community liaison yesterday inviting me to an 11:00 a.m. press conference Sunday against tolling the Harlem River bridges. I wrote back asking what Espaillat was proposing as an alternative source of funding for the MTA should the bridges not be tolled. I added that as one of the majority of people in upper Manhattan who depend on the MTA for getting around, I was alarmed at the prospect of a major fare hike and service cuts in the MTA and could not oppose any recommendations in the Ravitch Report unless acceptable alternative sources of funding were identified.

  • Adam


    That’s more or less the idea. The Verrazano used to be a two-way toll like the other MTA bridges, but in order to ease congestion out of Staten Island in the years before EZ-pass the toll was doubled and made only one way, theoretically earning the same revenue while speeding up traffic. A round trip commuter from Staten Island who pays $10 in one direction is the same as a round-trip commuter over the Tri-boro who pays $5 each way.

    Now the truth is when I lived in PA and had a car if I was going to Brooklyn I would always go through Staten Island on the way in and Manhattan on the way out to avoid the toll. And I also have never taken the Tri-boro even when it made geographic sense.

    If I had to pay $5 no matter what bridge I crossed in whatever direction I would just suck it up and take the most efficient route.

    I would like to see Port Authority tolls off setting MTA tolls and vice versa. I think it discourages regional access to have someone coming from Long Island to pay twice to get to New Jersey. Maybe have $10 be the maximum bridge & tunnel toll that someone would pay in one day?

  • jmc

    I live in the Bronx, and to be honest the Triboro bridge doesn’t save much time unless it’s very late at night. The approaches and toll plazas are a disaster and it’s not that well connected. The FDR around there is also very messed up. Meanwhile, the 3rd avenue/ Willis avenue bridges are smooth sailing. So why spend the money? If you had to spend the money, I think people would still continue to use these bridges because they’re actually pretty efficient.

    I also am so upset that they wasted money on renaming the bridge that I won’t take the Triboro anymore. I’m not going to fund such jingoism, especially when the bridge is filled with potholes and temporary signage.

    Perhaps if the corrupt retards in Albany had funneled the millions of dollars they’re using to rename the bridge (after someone who had NOTHING to do with the bridge’s construction) to repair it , it would be a more efficient way to get around.

    I am not sure if the neighborhoods near these bridges would really see much improvement in air quality with tolling. There are highways all over the place running in parallel to all the bridge approaches. This is all about revenue, which is fine, it’s a legitimate source of revenue.

    If they’re going to toll all the bridges they should make them variable tolls to optimize traffic flow, and not have non-EZ-pass lanes, that would only create more traffic.

    Furthermore, why is the MTA the one agency that keeps orange car-stoppers at the tolls? They really do slow it down as everyone needs to come to a full stop. EZ pass tolls should all be 15 miles/hour.

  • jmc

    Tolling is not going to make the bruckner boulevard neighborhood nicer when it’s surrounded by highways and approaches, it’s an unfortunate victim of Moses’ highway boom. There are plenty of other neighborhoods (eg grand concourse) that have much more promise if only the traffic was calmed and the public realm was restored.

  • somebody

    ah, FINALLY somebody out there notices the source of much upper manhattan (and bronx) traffic!!

    and, thank you, urbanis for telling espaillat like it should be. i would add that more mta funding could also provide better bus service across those very same bridges – highly unlikely considering the prospect of barely being able to hold up the system as it is.

  • So these politicians in the Bronx don’t want a $2 toll for whatever handful of residents actually drive into Manhattan via these bridges (anyone have car ownership percentages for their districts, let alone commutation rates?), but they’re down with a 23% fare hike and service cuts for the many-times-more of their constituents who use mass transit?

    I suppose they’re opposed to both, and are expecting the transit money to come from the Feds or a payroll tax or some pot o’ gold at the end of a rainbow.

  • Rhywun

    > 2 round-trip tickets on the train ($26), plus the $8 in subway rides
    > to and from Grand Central will cost far more than driving would have.

    So why are you doing it? Obviously there are other factors that make it worthwhile. Maybe the free time you gain by not having to drive? The reduction of stress? There are lots of costs of driving that don’t commonly get factored into the total cost.

  • Rhywun

    > So these politicians in the Bronx don’t want a $2 toll for whatever
    > handful of residents actually drive into Manhattan via these bridges

    Considering that they and their donors who pull the strings probably haven’t ridden a subway since their pre-law days, it’s not surprising how out-of-touch they are.

  • rlb

    “Meanwhile, the 3rd avenue/ Willis avenue bridges are smooth sailing.”

    I can see the Willis ave bridge from my desk and I’m on Bruckner Blvd when I go outside. The Willis ave bridge has bumper-to-bumper traffic on it every day from about 2pm to 7pm. Bruckner blvd approach to the 3rd ave bridge frequently has bumper-to-bumper traffic all day.

    I think implicit in all this tolling is that it will reduce the amount of traffic. One can take this to mean that it will reduce the traffic over this trio of Bronx/Manhattan bridges. If the price for all were the same, more people would congregate around the fastest of three, which is the RFK. It’s the fastest because you don’t have to use neighborhood streets.

  • Re: #13, well, I don’t see Espaillat organizing a press conference to protest MTA fare hikes and service cuts.

  • Pete

    >> 2 round-trip tickets on the train ($26), plus the $8 in subway rides
    >> to and from Grand Central will cost far more than driving would have.

    > So why are you doing it? Obviously there are other factors that make it
    > worthwhile. Maybe the free time you gain by not having to drive? The
    > reduction of stress? There are lots of costs of driving that don’t commonly
    > get factored into the total cost.

    Rhywun, in this case, I’m doing it because I won’t have access to my car this holiday season. Otherwise, I’d drive it in a heartbeat.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    All the more reason to end the rebate in the Rockaways, how do you toll the Harlem River Bridges and let the Cross Bay Bridge remain free for residents?

  • 1. I never knew that the Cross Bay Bridge was free for residents. Is that true? I thought it was a reduced rate that they paid, like on the Marine Parkway Bridge.

    2. They should put one-way tolls back on the Verrazano at least for trucks. They are ones who abuse the one-way toll by using it more inbound than outbound and result in lost revenue and added traffic for Brooklyn.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    They pay a reduced fee, then it is rebated, hard to believe but true.

  • Venoms

    Yearly fees for new york residents and tolls for commercial and non residents, or tolls on I87 before Yankee stadium exit

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    That might even be a good idea Venoms, for all I know, however, it is my perception that the Ravitch Plan will probably have to be swallowed whole or not at all, it is not going to get cut up into bite-size pieces the way Congestion Pricing did, or at least that is the political/economic/fiscal crisis strategy at this point.

  • An Other Greek

    I live in the South Bronx.

    While I use the MTA to get to work, because of fatigue and safety concerns, I use taxis 4 nights a week to take me home (around 1 AM), after my 12 hour shifts at work (don’t ask)

    anyway, this would add about a minimum of $32 to my monthly commute.

    This is real, and this is about my neighborhood access. It’s hard enough dealing with all the stigma of living here (their issues), as well as the other inconveniences. Now this! All while we are all desperately trying to “Raise the BX”… Can someone show me why I should support the tolls? Or better yet, can someone propose a way that the locals will not have a new penalty added to their budget, which more often then not in the BX, is already strained?

    (oh, and btw, concerning traffic woes, I for one, not being a driver, appreciate the cars going thorough what some of you call “my dismall neighborhood”. It makes me feel safer having traffic in what otherwise might be empty streets)

    thank you

  • An Other Greek

    Actually, Venoms response may be the ticket… Instead of tolling the bridges, why not toll the highways? Then the affluent Westchester group that seems to justify the reasoning would be more specifically targeted…

    This would deal with the traffic issue AND the issue of not wanting to further isolate the South Bronx, financially or perceptively…

    I am really uncomfortable with any further “borough/Manhattan isolation”…




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