Skip to Content
Streetsblog New York City home
Streetsblog New York City home
Log In
Bridge Tolls

Mayor William J. Gaynor Owes New York City $31 Billion, and Counting

Advocates for the city's bridges reenact the last tolls paid over the Williamsburg Bridge, one hundred years ago at the time. Then, automobile tolls were only a dime. Pushcarts, bicycles, and horse-drawn vehicles paid a nickel. Photo: Noah Kazis.

What transportation projects would you build with $31 billion? That's how much would have been raised had the tolls on the four city-owned East River Bridges not been removed 100 years ago today.

"We would have a subway that runs on Second Avenue from the Bronx to the Battery," said Sam Schwartz, the former city traffic commissioner and the co-founder of the New York City Bridges Centennial Commission. "We would see a subway to Staten Island which was started in 1923 and was aborted."

Not only would $31 billion have paid for major new transit projects, said Schwartz, it would have kept those free bridges in a state of good repair rather than the near-collapse they fell into in the 1980s. In 1988, recalled Schwartz, he had to close the entire Williamsburg Bridge for three months in 1988 to prevent it from falling into the river. "I would jealously look over at the Verrazano Bridge being painted and repainted," he said. "The difference at the Verrazano Bridge is you pay a $13 toll. You get what you pay for."

When Mayor William J. Gaynor tore out the tollbooths, driving across the bridge only cost a dime. Cyclists paid a nickel, and horse riders three cents. Even at those now-minimal rates, the payment of which was reenacted today by advocates in period dress and antique vehicles, the tolls would have raised over $1 billion in the last century, according to Schwartz. Had the tolls remained in place and then been raised over time to match the tolls on the Triborough Bridge, they'd have raised $31 billion in 2011 dollars.

Today, the Williamsburg Bridge is crushed by traffic, even at midday, because of the lack of tolls. Photo: Noah Kazis.

Today's reenactment took place at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge. The grinding traffic in both directions spoke to another motive for restoring the tolls one hundred years later. In addition to raising revenue, bridge tolls would effectively curb congestion by ending the giveaway of some of the world's most in-demand roads.

At the time, Gaynor saw removing the tolls as a way of knitting together the new unified city of New York, which had only been formed thirteen years earlier. But even then, it was widely understood that taking out tolls meant giving a break to relatively privileged drivers over the rest of the city. The New York Times wrote that Francis Bent, a Tammany-aligned alderman from Brooklyn, "did not believe in removing tolls paid for the most part by wealthy automobile owners 'who did not care whether they paid tolls or not.'"

More pictures after the jump.

Sam Schwartz holds up the cover of the New York Post from when the Williamsburg Bridge was closed for three months. A lack of funds had doomed the bridge to disrepair and at the time, it wasn't clear if it would ever reopen. Photo: Noah Kazis.
Even if toll rates had stayed at ten cents per automobile, they'd have raised over a billion dollars in the last century. The tolls on horses wouldn't be raising too much these days, though. Photo: Noah Kazis.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog New York City

Friday’s Headlines: Hochul’s Fantasy World Edition

The governor has gone off the deep end. Plus other news.

July 19, 2024

Speaker Adams: Council May Not Use its ‘Sammy’s Law’ Power to Lower Speed Limits

The Council may not lower the speed limit, even though it fought so hard to get that very right from the state legislature.

July 19, 2024

Parks Dept. Has Money But No Timeline to Finish Eastern Queens Greenway

There's tens of millions of dollars for the greenway, so when will parks build it?

July 19, 2024

Thursday’s Headlines: Paris is a Lot Cooler than NYC Edition

The City of Light has figured out how to reduce the heat island effect. Plus other news in today's daily digest.

July 18, 2024

Exclusive: Legal Team Announced for Suit Against Hochul’s Congestion Pricing ‘Pause’

Attorneys from three firms have inked a joint defense agreement to fight "the governor’s illegal decision to cancel congestion pricing," Comptroller Brad Lander said.

July 17, 2024
See all posts