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Congestion Pricing

MONEY FOR NOTHING: Transit Authority Gives Manhattan Taxi Fees to Queens Drivers

4:03 PM EDT on April 11, 2019

The MTA plans to use money raised from Manhattan taxi trips to expand Cross Bay Veteran Memorial Bridge discounts to all Queens residents. Photo: MTA

A revenue street created by state leaders last year to boost public transit just became a subsidy for Queens drivers.

A portion of approximately $300 million in transit revenues that will be generated this year from fees imposed on taxis in Manhattan will be siphoned off from subway and bus riders to give toll discounts to Queens residents who drive over the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge beginning next spring, the MTA announced today.

Since Jan. 1, the state has imposed a $2.75 surcharge on single-occupancy for-hire vehicles trips beginning or ending in Manhattan below 96th Street, as well as a $.75-cent fee on all "pool" trips in the same zone. According to the state law that created the surcharges, $50 million of the revenue must go to an "outer-borough transportation account," which, as the MTA revealed, is not solely reserved for mass transit [PDF].

That came as a surprise to some advocates, who expected the money funneled into the city's plagued subways, buses, and railroads — even if the letter of the law allowed for exceptions.

"This fund was established to fund transit improvements," said Nick Sifuentes of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. "It’s hard to see how reducing tolls for the minority of Queens residents who drive is a transit improvement. Furthermore, it reduces revenues the MTA counts on to operate our actual transit system — so now the difference will have to be made up somewhere else."

The bill language — approved by the legislature last spring — stipulated that the outer-borough transportation fund "shall be used for the exclusive purpose of funding ... projects improving transportation connections from such counties to [Manhattan]." Alas, the bill also permitted the MTA to use it to fund "toll reduction[s] ... for any crossings" under the jurisdiction of the MTA or its affiliates.

Advocates had hoped money would provide transit improvements to outer-borough districts whose representatives were more reluctant to support congestion pricing because, in their owns words, their constituents lacked sufficient alternatives to driving.

That was exactly how things were playing out before Thursday's toll rebate announcement: Last week, Eastern Queens Assembly Members Nily Rozic and Ed Braunstein announced that they'd secured money from the outer-borough transportation fund for additional bus service and Long Island Rail Road discounts for their constituents.

In contrast, Southwest Queens Senator Joe Addabbo and Assembly Member Stacey Pheffer Amato chose to benefit drivers heading to or from the Rockaways over hundreds of thousands of constituents who take transit. Rockaway and Broad Channel residents already get a $2.84 rebate every time they cross the $4.25 bridge.

"Expanding the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge rebate program to all Queens residents is a complete economic game changer for our communities in allowing freedom and ease of access to the entire Borough," Pheffer Amato said in a statement. The MTA did not tell Streetsblog how much money the expanded rebate program will siphon from the taxi surcharge fund.

Those economic benefits are limited to the slight majority of Pheffer Amato's constituents who drive: The 36 percent who rely on mass transit — who make $12,000 on average less than their driving neighbors — won't see them.

The decision to benefit drivers over transit riders raises concerns that the broader congestion pricing tolling, which passed earlier this month, might also include giveaways. But the "lockbox" language in the tolling plan for Manhattan's central business district explicitly reserves the money for MTA capital projects.

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