John Liu Releases a Bridge Toll Plan That Panders to Motorists

So John Liu has managed to take an excellent idea — tolling the East River bridges — and turn it into a policy disaster.

The key component of Liu’s plan, which he says would raise $410 million annually, isn’t the tolls — it’s the exemption for city residents. Here’s what Liu said at an Association for Better New York event today:

To get that money, we would toll the East River Bridges for non-city residents. It’s something that’s been talked about before, and I think certainly makes sense, and is more realistic than a restoration of the commuter tax — that I would love to see, but I’m not sure how open Albany would be.

Of course, Albany is just going to fall in love with a toll plan where Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester pay, while New York City doesn’t.

Here’s an excerpt from the press release that accompanied the release of the “People’s Budget” — an overall fiscal plan that Liu released in his capacity as comptroller:

Tolling the East River Bridges would mean that membership — or in this case, residency, New York City residency — has its privileges. Non-residents commuting by car can and should contribute to the upkeep of our city’s infrastructure.

By exempting motorists who live in the five boroughs, Liu’s plan would not solve the city’s transit funding problems — the next MTA capital program will still have a gaping hole. (Compare Liu’s $410 million to the $2.8 $1.5 billion projected net revenue from the Sam Schwartz plan.) While Liu suggested devoting revenue to “infrastructure,” he also mentioned that it could be used for “offsetting increased city contributions to the MTA,” which might just lead to tolls that pad other areas of the city budget.

It’s somewhat baffling why Liu would propose a non-starter like this. Exempting millions of motorists negates the value of tolls as a tool to meaningfully reduce congestion, and it undermines the notion that motorists should pay for using roads. Let’s hope this idea doesn’t infect the other campaigns.

  • Anonymous

    Giving free stuff to the voters is always popular.

    At least this might discourage interstate truckers from driving through Manhattan to get to/from NJ.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “It’s somewhat baffling why Liu would propose a non-starter like this.”

    Because he is seeking the support of swing voters: nasty, selfish people who only care about themselves?

    No one is competing for my vote. But if they were, it seems the best thing they could do would be to shut up.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Let’s hope this idea doesn’t infect the other campaigns.”

    Don’t given him credit for an original idea. I think he got this particular pander from Weiner, who also promised that if congestion pricing was voted down, $millions would fall from the sky.

    These people have no idea but to pander, and no idea how to do so, so they recycle the same crap.

  • Mark Walker

    Liu is sending a message to transit riders. The message is save your vote for someone else. Before he opened his mouth he was my top pick thanks to his past support of congestion pricing. Now he’s not. Now, would any other Democrats like to define a livable streets platform before I cast my vote for Joe Lhota?

  • To be fair, this would really make it much easier for straw donors to get to his fundraisers.

  • Andrew

    Glad to hear that Candidate Liu thinks that residency has its privileges.

    Apparently the privilege he would like to bestow on the car-owning minority is free passage (by car) across the East River bridges.

    What privilege does he plan to bestow on the rest of us who don’t own cars? (Or, for that matter, to residents who own cars but simply have no need or desire to drive across the East River on a regular basis?)

  • Bolwerk

    From what I hear from people who work with him, he’s an autocratic, thin-skinned, and has obnoxious regal airs about him (e.g., subordinates supposedly are to rise when he enters the room).

    That said, his idea might be more palatable if the way people redeemed their “exemption” was to write the toll off their taxes rather than simply be exempt. It’s not optimal, but at least it might still make a difference that way.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Now, would any other Democrats like to define a livable streets platform before I cast my vote for Joe Lhota?”

    Who was promising before he promised to end the toll to transit subsidy and blame the state when the system collapsed. Really, they should just shut up.

  • Might be interesting if the CAR is an NYC resident, not just the owner. When a car is registered in NYC, the insurance rates and all else are local, and not Florida, Penn or Vermont or upstate NY. Same outcome with neighborhood permit parking. NYC car owners will have to make a choice, cheap out of state plates or the free (or reduced) tolls on the NYC bridges.

    Next question is, how will they track each car’s status? E-Z Passes can be switched between cars. Scan the license plates for home address? May be too complex to implement!

  • Eric McClure

    Sal Albanese looks better every day.

  • Hank Green

    One day we’ll have a major candidate who honestly cares about complete streets and livable communities, but you have to understand that politicians are generally far behind the times. We see this in almost every other aspect, from gun control to legalizing pot; their disconnect with the American people (and connection to the corporations like AAA) is why they have such crummy approval ratings. But by making enough noise we change the culture and they will eventually follow. Subjectively I feel that both Quinn and DeBlasio have been less “rip up the bike lanes” recently since they see that’s a real looser in the polling numbers. That’s not the same as caring for New Yorkers so much that they honestly want to make thing better, but it’s still a shift in the right direction due largely to things like the people that read this blog.

  • Guest

    In general (not always), city residents have more transit options available. Why would you charge them less than people who have fewer alternatives to driving?

    Oh, right, it’s just about hitting whichever people happen to have the least political leverage. No transportation policy here!

  • VukanDeathGrip

    Its certainly a politicians dodge to exempt non-City residents, but Ben, you really can’t be all that ‘baffled’. I doubt any candidate in this race is going to come out in favor of a full-on Sam Schwartz plan. If they come out with any plan at all.

    This particular plan will never happen, but I am happy to have non-City resident drivers contribute $410 million to the maintenance of the bridges, or the MTA capital plan, or whatever really. All residents, drivers or not, pay for the upkeep of DOT bridges. Non-city-resident users of those bridges should certainly contribute too.

  • Jonathan Matz

    A quick clarification – Sam’s Plan (now the Move NY Plan) would net $1.5 billion annually, not $2.8 billion. We think that’s still pretty good, and we definitely agree that NYC residents, and not just commuters from the suburbs, should contribute to maintaining their bridges and transit system.


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