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

Advocates for the city's bridges reenact the last toll payment on the Williamsburg Bridge, one hundred years ago. At the time, 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 there is no price to drive across it. 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 announcing the total closure of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1998. 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
  • Bolwerk

    When you see stuff like this, it really is difficult for me to imagine why even drivers would object to paying a toll across the East River bridges.

    <a href=""Here is City Room’s coverage of this.

  • MRB

    How would folks react if bicycles were included in a future tolling plan, even at the extraordinary low prices of yesteryear? Maybe notsomuch as to charge for wear-and-tear, but for ‘access’ to Manhattan?

  • I would object strenuously to the re-imposition of tolls on bicycles, push cart vehicles, horses without vehicles, and single vehicles with one horse. Double vehicles with one horse have got to pay their way though.

  • I would object strenuously to the re-imposition of tolls on bicycles, push cart vehicles, horses without vehicles, and single vehicles with one horse. Double vehicles with one horse have got to pay their way though.

  • From what I understand, weight damages structures at an exponential rate.

    So if a car is 2x as heavy as a bike (lols), youre getting much mroe than 2x the wear and tear.

    So we’d have to calculate the weight of a car (~3,000lbs) the weight of a bike (~170lbs with passenger) and then tax according to wear and tear.

    The bike toll would probably have to be set at one cent so that the car toll is reasonable, the the truck toll doesnt require an exchange of a penthouse.

  • Anonymous

    I woudl add 31 lanes on to the 405 in LA.

  • Jeff

    Something like this oughtta do the trick:

  • Anonymous

    @7e1970922cf83fe54c9f1a64d1af39c9:disqus amazing.  I’ve never seen that.  I looked all over for where they planned on putting all the parking.

  • Stephen Bauman

    I think the article does a great disservice to Mayor Gaynor. Gaynor probably had more first hand knowledge about the Brooklyn Bridge traffic than any mayor before or since. In the age before a mayoral residence, Gaynor walked from his Park Slope home to City Hall in all weather conditions. His route went over the Brooklyn Bridge and he paid the penny toll for pedestrians.

    Gaynor was also responsible for the greatest expansion of public transit in the City’s history. His administration was responsible for the Dual Contracts which built what became the BMT Broadway and Nassau St Lines, the IRT Lexington Ave Line and Seventh Ave Lines in Manhattan, the BMT-IRT Astoria and Corona Lines in Queens, the IRT Jerome Avenue, Pelham and White Plains Road Lines in the Bronx, doubling the capacity of the existing IRT 2nd, 3rd and 9th Ave Els in Manhattan and upgrading and connecting the existing BMT Culver, Brighton, Sea Beach and West End Lines in Brooklyn to the BMT Broadway subway in Manhattan.

    It was not thought that Gaynor would survive the assassination attempt. He recuperation was outside NYC. This meant that the President of the Board of Aldermen, John P. Mitchel, became acting mayor. Mitchel was a Republican and sought to discredit Democrat Gaynor by hiring a young Yale PhD to evaluate the need for all of Gaynor’s appointees. Gaynor did survive and appeared unannounced at City Hall to resume his mayoral duties. One of Gaynor’s first acts upon his return was to fire that Yale man, Robert Moses.

  • I’m not so sure I accept the contention that adding tolls would “help ease congestion.” I mean, have you spent much time around the various tunnels to/from NJ? I’m not saying the tolls cause the insane congestion that is, for example, nearly all of Canal and Broom Streets leading to the Holland Tunnel, but I think we can all agree that the existence of tolls has not eliminated said congestion. Perhaps without tolls it would be even worse? Again, I’m not convinced. There are a finite number of options for crossing, and people are going to need to cross, toll or no toll. I don’t think bridge tolls are equivalent to congestion pricing, by the way, which I would support. Those are targeted fees levied for the expressed purpose of reducing congestion. Bridge/tunnel tolls, even if they have peak and off-peak pricing, are not the same. The revenue tends to go to maintenance, as the article suggests.

    Also, one of my favorite things about using my bike as my sole means of transport is that it’s free. If every time I wanted to go to Manhattan I had to stop and pay a toll, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t like that. But no one wants to pay tolls, right? That’s the problem. Everyone wants someone else to pick up the tab. So us bikers/walkers would agree with, I’d imagine, 100% of drivers on this point.

    So I think when it comes to maintaining basic infrastructure likes roads and bridges, or waste management, or the fire department, and so on, it behoves everyone for these things to exist and be maintained, regardless of if they themselves are direct users of the service. By living in this society, everyone benefits from having roads and bridges, regardless of it they ever drive, or ride a bike, or even walk on them. Because all of the goods they consume get to them by way of this fundamental infrastructure.

    So I’d suggest something other than adding tolls, which are inherently regressive taxation since everyone pays the same price regardless of if they’re a millionaire in a $120,000 rolling status symbol, or a guy making next to nothing delivering produce to bodegas. I think that a minimal, line-item “local transit infrastructure maintenance” tax, pegged to income, that shows up on everyone’s annual tax forms would be a better way to generate these vital funds than installing some complicated, ugly, “pay every time you cross the bridge” set of toll booths. And I think almost anyone would prefer this sort of one-off, labeled, affordable, periodic “all you can eat” fee, over the more cumbersome nickel-and-diming payment plan. Hence the popularity of unlimited metrocards, Netflix, and so on. And by spreading out the fee to everyone who benefits from the existence of roads and bridges (which is everyone), rather than burdening only the much smaller number of direct users of it, the annual tax could be relatively low.

  • Andrew

    The crossings to New Jersey all charge the same toll, so there isn’t much to compare there.  To see the effects of tolling on congestion, look at the East River, where some crossings are tolled and others aren’t.

    There are actually plenty of options for crossing that don’t involve driving over a bridge.  Most people who cross the East River, for instance, do so by subway.  And they pay a toll (excuse me, a fare) to do so.

    If my neighbor fails to have his trash removed, or my neighbor fails to have his fires extinguished, I am negatively affected.  If my neighbor fails to drive a car, I am positively affected.  Subsidizing my neighbor’s trash removal and fire protection is in my own interest.  Subsidizing my neighbor’s driving is not.  He is welcome to drive if he so chooses, but I shouldn’t pay him for making that choice.

    Also, it appears that you don’t realize that modern tolls are not collected at toll booths.  They are collected electronically by EZ-Pass readers.  Nobody is proposing physical toll booths.

    Tolls are are not “regressive taxation” because they are neither regressive nor taxation.  They are not regressive because most New Yorkers don’t own cars, and those who do are generally more affluent than those who don’t, and because those who choose to drive across the East River frequently are the most affluent among them.  They are not taxation because they are payments for specific services.

    The guy delivering produce to bodegas includes the cost of transportation in his prices.  So if he has to pay a new toll, he will pass that cost on to the bodegas, and the price of each item will go up a fraction of a penny.  On the flip side, if the new tolls reduce congestion to the point that he can increase his productivity by 10%, he’s more than made up for the cost of the tolls, and he can reduce his prices.Everybody benefits – far more fundamentally – from food and from housing.  So should food and housing be free?  Or should we recognize that some food and some housing is cheaper than others, and allow people to decide on their own how much they’re willing to spend?  If food and housing were free, think about how people would behave differently.  Do you think the result would be good or bad?  Now think about how that applies to roads and bridges.

  • Bolwerk

    If ever bikes are so clogging the East River bridges that more bikes can’t even fit, then a toll would make perfect sense.

  • JK

    Great job Sam Schwartz! Excellent props and big visuals.

  • Really great, thoughtful reply Andrew. I’ll just add that there is no toll to drive through the Holland Tunnel to New Jersey, and that’s just the problem, since another major alternative, the Verrazano Narrows bridge has a hefty toll (and would require an act of Congress to reverse).

  • Andrew, I don’t think you know as much about this as you think  you do. Yes, I’m aware of the advent of EZ passes. However, you may be surprised to learn there are in fact still toll booths. I had to rent a car and drive to NJ for a work thing earlier this week. For company policy reasons I had to rent the car from Enterprise and it didn’t have an EZ pass in it. Instead I had to stop at the toll booth and pay $8 to get back to Manhattan. Kickin’ it old school! Also, there are in fact a wide range of toll prices to go through the tunnels from NJ; off-peak and peak, kind of vehicle, etc.:

    Additionally, I think you have a pretty out-of-touch perception of who actually owns cars in NYC. In Manhattan, I agree, it’s probably mostly the wealthy. But in the outer boroughs I’m quite sure it is not. It’s primarily people who live out in far-flung neighborhoods you don’t even visit, much less live in. In these mysterious and undesirable areas many people have, gasp, yards and driveways. There are lots of minivans. And there are a wide variety of incomes represented. Many of those car owners are not rich at all. Many are actually quite poor. Granted, I’m not sure how many of those people drive across the bridges with any regularity. But nevertheless, to just say ‘normal people who live in NYC don’t have cars, only rich people do’ shows a very simplified, and not accurate portrait of a complicated city.

    And as for the the MTA, you’re not paying a “toll/fare” to cross the river, you’re paying a fare to help fund for the entire system, which uses tons of energy, has conductors, station personnel, toll booths (… er, turnstiles), and so on. A fare from Brooklyn or Queens to Manhattan is no more expensive than any other ride you take. So clearly people who never even leave Manhattan are helping to subsidize the presumably more expensive maintenance work done in the tunnels.

    Since you took my argument to an illogical extreme (no, I don’t think we should have a communal food system or whatever), I’ll turn it back to you: You think bridges should be separated out in terms of transit funding streams, so I assume you also think each road should be? I mean, why stop at bridges? There are plenty of tollroads, why not just make every city street have a toll? I’ll tell you why not: because it’s an annoying way to fund things, that’s why!

    Also, you didn’t address the fact that had tolls persisted you’d paying them on your bike, so it’s not just cars we’re talking about here. You’d pay half of what cars pay, according to the chart above. I guess you’d be a-ok with that? You’d probably have an EZ pass for your bike in this wonderful world. And every time you’d ride across, you’d pitch in your, adjusted for inflation, $4 or whatever. Sounds great, I’m sure you’d agree. Also, it wouldn’t just be bridges, since tolls work so well to pay for basic transit infrastructure, we’d naturally have pristine pothole-less streets and freshly painted stripes on every road, but you’d have to pay to ride down every single one of them. It’d be great. And very, very, very expensive to get anywhere. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather just slightly raise everyone’s annual taxes (pegged to their income) and have all these same perks but without the tolls? I know I sure would.

  • Andrew

    Sorry for the slightly belated response.

    @twitter-9403902:disqus All of the NYC-NJ crossings have the same toll, so I don’t have a problem with the Holland Tunnel arrangement.  The problem is that the crossings out of New Jersey either charge no toll, a single toll, or a double toll, depending on which one you choose – and the cheaper the choice, the closer it dumps you into pedestrian-heavy Manhattan.

    @facebook-502609120:disqus I have a feeling I know more about this than you think I think I do.  I know that there are toll booths.  But there will be no toll booths when tolls are instituted on the bridges that don’t currently have tolls.  (Yes, “when” – it will happen eventually.)  Photo enforcement can deal with EZ-Passless cars.  It’s called open road tolling – look it up.

    I think I have a better idea of who owns cars in NYC than you do.  Let’s start with the basic fact: fewer than half of NYC households own cars.  Let’s continue with something a bit more advanced: those who do own cars are, on average, wealthier than those who don’t.  (Obviously, that doesn’t mean that every single car owner is wealthier than every single car nonowner.  I never said that.)  Let’s keep going: tolls don’t gang up on all drivers, no matter how they use the car.  Instead, they only apply to drivers who cross bridges, and they only apply when those drivers cross bridges.  So if you own a car and you don’t drive over bridges very often, you won’t have to pay the toll very often.  And when you do pay the toll, you will encounter lighter traffic, so you will get where you’re going faster.  So what it boils down to is that tolls hurt drivers who drive across bridges frequently and don’t value their time very much, and they help everybody else.  That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

    This may come as a surprise, but there are plenty of costs associated with driving.  One example of many: space.  NYC devotes most of its public land to facilities for cars.  That’s space that could otherwise be used for other purposes: maybe parkland, or pedestrian space, or bike lanes, or food carts, or (in the case of municipal parking lots and garages) housing or commercial space.  But instead it’s occupied by cars.  Remind me, how much do drivers pay for that space?  Oh, right: nothing at all.  (Or if you ask BrooklynBus, he’d claim $15 per year.)

    I wouldn’t oppose tolling city streets at all.  Bridges are a good place to start, because there are only a few of them, and tolling all of them at once would avoid the problem of toll shopping (which currently exists with some tolled and some untolled bridges).  The only way to avoid toll shopping on city streets is to toll all of them at once.  I’m not sure if the equipment is inexpensive enough to go that far just yet.  But in principle, I think it’s a great idea.  I don’t see why you call it “an annoying way to fund things” – how is it annoying to drive past an EZ-Pass reader?  Or are you still thinking of old fashioned toll booth, which obviously wouldn’t apply here?

    I don’t own a bike – I’m not sure why you assume that I do.  Bike tolls are OK in principle, but they’d have to be so much lower than car tolls that I’m not sure it would be worth it.  (The same goes, even moreso, for pedestrian tolls.)

    Perhaps you’re unaware, but our transportation system – locally, regionally, nationally – is facing a funding crisis.  Also, there are way too many cars on the road (that’s why you may on occasion encounter a traffic jam or two).  Reducing the cost of driving and raising the cost of doing anything else would only exacerbate the problem.

    You know, the same way it isn’t a good idea for food or housing to be free.  Even though food and housing are far more basic necessities than driving.

  • Qwerty

    Shut up


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