Tony Avella Finds It “Offensive” to Say the Truth About NYC’s Toll System

In his quest to preserve free driving privileges over the Queensboro Bridge, State Senator Tony Avella seems to be having a hard time rounding up the old gang.

Photo: NY Senate
Photo: NY Senate

Yesterday, Avella tried to pick a fight with Council Member Mark Weprin, a fellow legislator from northeast Queens who opposed the 2008 congestion pricing plan but backs the Move NY toll swap proposal.

In an interview on NY1 Tuesday night, Weprin said it’s unfair to hike tolls and fares for everyone except the people who get to drive into Manhattan for free each day. “Every time the tolls go up, everyone’s costs go up. Every time the subway fares go up, people’s costs go up,” he said. “The only people who don’t pay extra are the people who use those free bridges right now to go to work. And most of those people are rich people who can probably afford to drive into the city. The average guy taking the subway, their costs keep going up.”

He’s right: Fewer than 20 percent of the 3.7 million people who travel to Manhattan south of 60th Street every day arrive by car, taxi or truck. Outer-borough residents who commute to Manhattan by car have household incomes 34 percent higher than the average New Yorker, according to Census numbers crunched by Move NY. The bottom line: The toll, which is capped for commercial vehicles, would fall on more affluent New Yorkers.

Tony Avella finds this offensive.

“I demand an apology from Council Member Mark Weprin for his outrageous comment,” Avella said in a press release. “This statement completely ignores the small businesses and commuters of all income levels who utilize these bridges on a daily basis and for whom added tolls would be a hardship… The legislature must take into consideration the middle and low-income New Yorkers who rely on these free bridges day in and day out.”

Avella and Weprin engaged in a Twitter back-and-forth in which Weprin distilled Avella’s position like so:


“Apology?” Avella tweeted back.

What makes Avella’s position even less defensible is that he’s rejecting a plan that would cut tolls in half on the Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges — both of which are within his district.

  • Joe R.

    I don’t doubt that the household income of outer borough residents who commute to Manhattan by car is higher than the city average. However, realistically what percentage of outer borough residents use cars instead of the subway for Manhattan commutes? Unless you work off-peak, it’s frankly brain-dead to drive into Manhattan, and most city residents know it. From where I live during peak hours it takes you 2 hours at least-each way, compared to 45 minutes to an hour by public transit. None of my neighbors who work in Manhattan drives in, although many use their cars regularly for local trips.

    We need to do a survey to see exactly who is driving their private cars into Manhattan. If it’s mostly LI/NJ/CT/upstate NY suburbanites as I suspect, then the MoveNY plan might do even more good. If some percentage of these people can be persuaded not to drive into Manhattan because of the higher cost, they may well take public transit all the way in, just driving to the local park-and-ride. That would radically reduce traffic in the boroughs these people drive through on their way into Manhattan. Remember parking is expensive and difficult in places like LIC where a Manhattan-bound driver might park to avoid paying to cross the bridge. That being the case, they might come to the conclusion taking the LIRR most of the way isn’t such a bad thing.

  • mrtuffguy

    “he’s rejecting a plan that would cut tolls in half on the Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges — both of which are within his district.”

    But he has to drive to City Hall in Manhattan- not to the Bronx

  • chris

    I haven’t gone through the MoveNY report, but is there a section that distills the decrease in congestion/increase in speed into $$? So if you have to pay $$ to cross the bridge, but can get from where you need to go 10 minutes faster (and its more predictable) wouldn’t THAT be worth the bridge toll?

  • millerstephen

    “Move NY projects a 15 to 20 percent drop in travel time for car trips south of 60th Street, and a 6 percent drop in travel time for car trips in Upper Manhattan, Western Queens, and northwest Brooklyn. Because of the reduced congestion, Move NY projects that taxi drivers will see a 15 percent increase in passenger turnover, leading to more fares per shift.”

  • BBnet3000

    *chooses to drive

  • chris

    Thanks – definitely easier to make the financial argument to Taxi drivers, but I am guessing that it might be a negative number for the median driver going back and forth every day – especially if we don’t know where on the cost curve where they would find value in time saved.

    This is not an argument against, just that Avella’s reaction probably speaks to the fact that his district is so transit poor – and that the MoveNY plan won’t be going towards transit improvements for his district. His constituents probably don’t use the throggs neck and whitestone that often (why would they) and the toll doesn’t give them the option to shift away to mass transit.

    maybe DOT should fund an express bus to LIRR Bayside or Auburndale>?

  • Ian Turner

    AFAIK a large portion of traffic on the free bridges consists of government employees with parking placards.

  • Mark Walker

    “Apology?” = “I am my car.”

  • dporpentine

    A. Press. Release.

    This guy used a press release to vent this sad attempt at manufactured outrage. I can’t believe we have to pay him and a whole staff to do something this dumb.

  • Andres Dee

    It’s all seniors heading for doctor appointments. (/sarc)

  • lop

    Moveny lowers lirr fares for in city travel, isn’t that worth something? Doesn’t it lower express bus fares too? There’s already the qm3 on northern Blvd. One group that does get hurt by the toll increase is cops and teachers and the like who are getting free parking in Manhattan. Maybe that’s who he has in mind.

  • Komanoff

    More here: Esp’ly in the Cost-Benefit and Breakeven tabs. Caveat #1: you need Excel to view and work the file. Caveat #2: Some of the “breakeven” results aren’t stellar. Part of the problem is that a lot of the time-saving benefits will be grabbed by “free rider” drivers whose trips skirt the CBD so their trips are faster yet aren’t tolled.

  • lop

    You suspect wrong.

    Nymtc travel records from five years ago said auto trips with CBD destinations by place of residence were 5% upper Manhattan, 17% lower Manhattan, 39% from outer boroughs, 11% from long island, 40% from outside the city. If the survey is too old for you then go to the nymtc website and see what their survey from five years ago said. The information you want exists, you don’t need anybody to do a new survey. Take a look at other data they have available, only a small share of traffic in your area is people heading to Manhattan. It’s mostly people who live near you, or are going to a destination near you.

  • Joe R.

    That still doesn’t make me wrong. 39% of ALL trips into the CBD are from the outer boroughs. What percent of rush hour trips are? And in any case 40% driving in from outside the city is greater than 39% who drive in from the outer boroughs. I hold to my gut feeling that the vast majority of people driving into Manhattan daily during peak hours are suburbanites. I even feel much of the traffic during the day near me is. Remember many teachers and cops live on LI but work throughout the city.

    We need a better plan which penalizes not just driving into the CBD, but into NYC period. A residency requirement for both public and private employees would be a great idea also.

  • Joe R.

    To which we have an obvious answer. NYC’s placard system is probably the most abused employee parking system in the country, if not the planet. If we allow city employees parking placards at all, then it should only be if they need a car to do their job. Moreover, it should only be for the destinations they would park at during the course of doing that job.

  • J_12

    For individuals and small businesses its hard to sell this because tolls are a direct cost, while time savings are hard to quantify and value.
    businesses with large fleets, like UPS, are probably very aware of the cost/benefit.

    Also, by definition there must be some subset for whom the tolls are in fact more costly than any utility from time savings. The reduction in traffic exists only because some people decide it is no longer worth it to drive. My guess is that much of the reduction comes from people who make occasional trips into the CBD consolidating trips, or people who have transit options that are only marginally worse than driving switching modes.

    Still, those people rightly see these tolls and forcing them to shift their behavior in a way that is less desirable than what they used to do. Of course those people still get the benefits that accrue to the whole region when transportation becomes more efficient, but those are diffuse and really difficult to say how valuable it is to any given individual.

  • J_12

    The majority are commercial vehicles, including taxis and delivery vehicles. But most of those are willing to pay tools in exchange for faster travel times.
    The marginal drivers who will change their behavior in response to tolls – it’s hard to say who they are.
    My gut feeling is that it is people who make occasional car trips into the CBD, and can reorganize to make fewer trips or use transit for more of them.
    People who drive private cars to get to work in the CBD on a regular basis are most likely high income, and and extra $50-100 per week may be annoying but not enough to make them switch.
    One exception would be municipal employees who get free parking. It’s probably enough to make many of them either switch to transit, or carpool, but they won’t be happy about it and may exercise some political muscle to carve out an exception.

  • ahwr

    Instead of going with a gut feeling why not check out NYMTC travel records?

    Excel or similar would be pretty slow with this sort of data, but you can get postgres or similar database software for free.

    For trips with destinations in Queens County and travel by auto (driver or passenger) ~88% (~85% with peak hour departure) of linked trips had an origin in Queens. For auto trips with destination in Manhattan with time of departure during the morning peak for every trip from Nassau or Suffolk you have ~4.3 from Queens or Brooklyn. More than twice as many people driving to Manhattan come from Queens as from Nassau and Suffolk combined. And most Brooklyn and Queens auto trips are to places in Queens or Brooklyn. The people driving around in NYC live here. The people you see driving near your home mostly live in Queens. I know you want to believe otherwise so that your dream of banning cars would mostly impact people who don’t live here, but it just isn’t supported by existing data.

  • Joe R.

    Vehicle miles here are probably a bigger indicator of the impact on traffic than trips. Someone driving from my block to the local grocery 4 blocks away (my late father often did that sad to say) counts as a trip, but the impact on local traffic is almost negligible. Someone driving in from Nassau or Suffolk also counts as one trip, but that vehicle could be congesting local streets for ten miles or more.

    I know you want to believe otherwise so that your dream of banning cars would mostly impact people who don’t live here, but it just isn’t supported by existing data.

    Again, it depends upon trip length. Many local trips here are made because the person may prefer to drive but if cars were restricted or banned they would be amenable to being made by other means. Not so in many cases for a person driving in from Nassau or Suffolk.

  • ahwr

    Trips count when you are always talking about getting rid of parking. But again, look at the data I linked you instead of just speculating. Instead of trip distance, let’s first look at trip duration, still limited to auto trips during morning peak. Trips with an origin and destination in Queens took 2.4 times as long as trips with an origin in Nassau or Suffolk and a destination in Queens, Brooklyn, or Manhattan. A lot of the travel time of the trips in the latter set wasn’t in Queens, and it ignores all the time spent in Queens by Queens origin trips out of the county. As for distance, assume the average trip from Nassau or Suffolk to Manhattan spent 15 miles on Queens streets. More than five times as many miles were driven on trips with an origin and destination in Queens. As for trips From Nassau to Queens, the average distance was less than eight miles, and not all of that is in Queens. Let’s be generous and assume all of that travel was in Queens, and that the average trip from Suffolk spent eight miles on Queens streets too. Let’s assume trips from Nassau or Suffolk to Brooklyn spent eight miles on Queens streets. Even being this generous you only have 70% as many miles as trips that start and end in Queens, and that’s ignoring all the trips from Queens out of the county that first spend miles on Queens streets. The people who drive in Queens mostly live in Queens.

  • Joe R.

    Here’s the thing. If you want to reduce car ownership and driving, which is actually necessary if we really want to reach the goal of Vision Zero, then you don’t need to rationalize it. I personally don’t care one way or another who life is harder for, Queens residents or Long Island residents, if we restrict or ban driving or parking. The only question which needs to be answered is does driving cause problems which exceed the benefits? In NYC the answer is most certainly yes. In Long Island maybe, perhaps in rural Nebraska no. Once that question is answered in the affirmative then it becomes more like dealing with second hand smoke. Sure, those who smoke hate laws which restrict or ban their habit but too bad because the harm they cause to others far exceeds any personal benefit. My personal feelings though, which your data may support, is that Queens residents will be less inconvenienced by restrictions on car use than suburbanites. Trip duration only correlates with trip distance if travel speeds are similar. Most trips which originate or end in Long Island are mostly done on highways. That may mean they’re too long for cycling, perhaps not amenable to public transit, either. Many Queens trips would be, particularly trips under 5 miles. Many more would be amenable to eventually being made by means other than car simply because we have the requisite density to support much more public transit here. In other words, I’m not just looking at what is, but what could be. I think Long Island could also eventually have much more comprehensive public transit, but probably never enough to make living without a car practical as it might be in a Queens with more subways plus BRT.

  • Joe R.

    It’s been pretty well documented that people in general aren’t willing to pay much to save time. There have been tolled HOV lanes, and also tolled lanes where you’re guaranteed a speed limit trip (or you don’t pay the toll) but they’ve been less than popular, sometimes even reverting back to regular traffic lanes.

    The converse however seems true-people seem willing to spend more time than it’s really worth to save money. Toll shopping is a great example. A long, stressful drive through Manhattan is apparently worth it to avoid a toll for a large number of truck drivers, for example. Then you have the morons who will line up at 3 AM to be the first in a store to save $20 or $30 on an item. What this means is taking “free” out of the equation is probably a good thing. Some large fraction of the population driving into Manhattan over the free bridges will no longer see it as worthwhile if they have to pay. They will either make the trip another way, or more likely just not make it at all. To them saving 5 or 10 or even 20 minutes won’t be enough of an incentive to pay. That calculus is more likely if we’re talking commercial drivers who can easily calculate how many more deliveries they can make in a shift if they spend 20 or 30 minutes less each day getting in/out of Manhattan.

  • Cold Shoaler

    “The converse however seems true-people seem willing to spend more time than it’s really worth to save money.”

    Look at how long people are willing to drive around looking for free parking rather than have to pay for it.

  • Rajvir

    Avella is a pig and racist.


We all pay for the status quo of free car access to the most crowded parts of the city.

The Unbearable Hassle of Carpooling From Eastern Queens

There is no right to drive for free within New York City limits. What we do have is a transit system where the poorest have to pay more per trip than the richest, and where people forgo reasonable transit options and the slight inconvenience of carpooling to clog streets with their polluting single-occupancy vehicles.