Robbin’ Hoods! Brooklyn Pols Would Swipe Money From MTA And Give It To Verrazzano Drivers

State Senator Andrew Gounardes (left), City Council Member Justin Brannan and Assembly Member Mathylde Frontus want some MTA money taken from subway and bus riders and given to drivers. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
State Senator Andrew Gounardes (left), City Council Member Justin Brannan and Assembly Member Mathylde Frontus want some MTA money taken from subway and bus riders and given to drivers. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Welcome to carveout county.

Four Southern Brooklyn politicians — all of whom consider themselves progressives — are demanding discounts for Brooklyn residents who drive regularly over the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge, despite a loss in revenue for the MTA that would hurt subway and bus riders.

The bill’s sponsors — State Senators Andrew Gounardes and Diane Savino, and Assembly Member Mathylde Frontus — denied that their proposal would steal from transit riders to subsidize drivers, whose advocates are already calling for exemptions when congestion pricing tolling begins in 2021.

“This is not about carving out or exempting anyone,” Gounardes said. “This is about giving specific relief to people who are not taking mass transit. … This is about people who need to drive regularly into Staten Island, which has its own lack of transit options. … The MTA has a financial crisis, but it’s not an excuse to solve that crisis on the backs of people in southern Brooklyn who are already struggling with high rents and high property taxes and also pay the highest toll in the country.”

The bill’s proposed reductions would apply only to Brooklyn residents who make more than 10 crossings per month. It would replicate the discounts that Staten Island residents already receive to drive over the bridge, whose one-way toll is $19 — though it drops to $12.24 for drivers with E-Z Pass. Staten Island residents pay only $5.50 for the round-trip. The tolls generate revenue for the MTA, though the agency declined to discuss the proposal or even provide statistics showing how many Brooklyn drivers would qualify for the discount.

The proposal comes on the heels of Queens politicians successfully convincing the state to siphon off money from transit so that drivers could get discounts on the Cross Bay Bridge.

Given the high stakes for transit, the group of politicians did not receive a single sympathetic question at Tuesday’s press conference, as reporters focused on the loss of revenue for the MTA and on the fact studies show that toll reductions tend to encourage more driving.

Savino was particularly frustrated by the line of questioning:

“Let’s try this again,” she said. “I only speak one language so I’m going to try this one more time: We are saying that people who are required to go to Staten Island on a regular basis be given a lower toll so that they are not saddled with these exorbitant tolls because they have no choice.”

Another reporter “tried it again” as well, this time slipping on a velvet glove:

How Streetsblog broke the earlier giveaway to drivers.

“You obviously have so much sympathy to Staten Islanders who struggle with public transit,” Savino was asked. “So what do you say to those commuters who will see this as s subsidy to drive to Staten Island at the expense of transit users?”

“They’re not going to see it that way because this isn’t taking money from their pockets,” she said. “I believe all toll payers should get toll relief. … Everybody should pay something and everybody should get something. That’s not the system we have now. People with the most transit options pay the least and people with the fewest transit options pay the most.”

None of the politicians mentioned global warming or the planet’s dependence on fossil fuel for transportation. Also, they declined to accept that at least part of the purpose of a toll is to discourage driving and to equalize the subsidy that drivers may not even be aware they are receiving, experts have said.

“It’s great for the city’s regional economy that the highway network accommodates travel between areas peripheral to the center,” said urban planner Ed Janoff of Street Plans. “The problem is that these sorts of cross-region trips have an outsized impact on the extensive publicly funded surface infrastructure they utilize, and on the health and welfare of the communities they travel through, relative to what drivers pay for them.

“By avoiding the few tolled bridges and tunnels, and if they can find free on-street parking spaces, drivers may not pay a nickel beyond their own vehicle operating costs — and the same income and property taxes as everyone else — while traveling dozens of miles through the most heavily populated area in North America,” Janoff added. “Meanwhile, someone taking a bus just a few blocks across town pays a $5.50 round-trip fare and sits in excruciating delays caused by all the other traffic. The regional driving trips needs to have fees associated with them which are at least comparable to local mass transit use in order incentivize organizations and individuals to utilize the regional transportation network in a way that is more efficient and equitable.”

Fees like tolls and congestion pricing do indeed hit drivers in the wallet, Janoff added, but by reducing congestion, they save those drivers time and aggravation.

Nonetheless, Frontus declined to believe that lowering the toll would encourage more people to drive.

“If you are not driving in to Staten Island now, are you telling me this discount is going to encourage a person to start driving to Staten Island?” she asked, apparently rhetorically, until one reporter, a Staten Island native, said that she could easily see herself deciding to start driving if suddenly the toll cost a fraction of its current fee.

Transit advocates credited Savino for her support of the earlier Move NY plan, but did not share her call for lower bridge tolls.

“The Move NY plan would’ve lowered tolls on bridges where there are fewer transit alternatives, like the Verrazzano, so the idea isn’t so foreign,” said Joe Cutrufo, a spokesman for Transportation Alternatives. “But is it a great idea to be lowering tolls in general? No, of course not. But if it were to be presented as a choice between, say, lower tolls between Staten Island and South Brooklyn or more exemptions for drivers entering the Manhattan central business district, this is the more-equitable proposal.

“Region-wide toll reform ought to be done not with one-offs like these, but in a more holistic manner that helps to discourage toll-shopping and the added vehicle miles traveled that comes with it, makes sure we’re not providing an incentive to drive where there’s transit available, and ensures that the transit system is funded,” he added.

Gounardes said he was open to expanding the Brooklyn-only discounts for other New Yorkers who use the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge to get to work or jobs on Staten Island.

“At the end of the day … I want toll equity across the city,” said the freshman lawmaker, who defeated veteran lawmaker Marty Golden last year with a campaign that focused on livable streets issues. “We have students who live in this neighborhood who go to the College of Staten Island or to Wagner College who drive every day. We have people who teach at Staten Island schools or work in the hospitals and mass transit is not a viable option.

“Yesterday, on Twitter, someone said to me, ‘I drive over that bridge six times a week to go to work, and I pay through the nose every single time,'” Gounardes added. “So we are trying to give targeted relief.”

Frontus was clear on the political upside of helping drivers with a targeted subsidy that few transit users would likely notice.

“To the people of Brooklyn, we have your backs and we are with you in solidarity,” she said.

Reminder: Fewer than half the households in Brooklyn even own a car.

  • iSkyscraper

    “This is not about carving out or exempting a specific group of people,” Gounardes said. “This is about carving out and exempting a specific group of people”.

    There, I fixed it.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The Move NY plan would’ve lowered tolls on bridges where there are fewer transit alternatives, like the Verrazzano, so the idea isn’t so foreign.”

    But that’s one of the list of items that has been lost by the successful theft of the city, state and MTA future by people like Savino and her supporters.

    She wants her crowd to be exempted from the fallout, since some of them haven’t gotten to Florida yet.

  • Joe R.

    This is exactly why we never should have went down the path of exemptions. Once you them to some people, everyone wants them. Or put another way, nobody’s special when everyone is special.

    How about just starting over with congestion pricing with two key tenets?

    1) Absolutely no exemptions for anyone.
    2) The revenues will be spent as they come in, not bonded against.

  • Joe R.

    Lack of transit options on Staten Island? Who’s fault is that? Weren’t proposals to connect Staten Island to the rest of the city via the subway opposed by residents? Nobody told these people to move somewhere where the only way off is via a bridge with a hefty toll. It’s like moving near a busy railroad then complaining about train horns. You want to live in a relatively isolated place for whatever reason, accept the negatives that go along with it, like high tolls. Don’t expect the city to bankroll your decision.

  • Urbanely

    I’m not in favor of the exemption, but if we allow them to live in isolation and don’t give any exemptions to CP, then we also shouldn’t try to upzone or otherwise alter the areas either…right?

  • Voter

    Really disappointing move from Gounardes who absolutely knows better.

  • Joe R.

    I’m fine with that. Every part of the city can’t be apartment buildings or multiple family housing. We have to realize some people want to live in single family homes, and just leave some zoning intact. If/when transit comes, then we can talk about upzoning, but not before. Upzoning before you have mass transit options results in horrible road congestion. My neighborhood in eastern Queens is a victim of such overbuilding. We have no nearby subways, plus mostly lousy bus service (i.e. it’s fine for getting people to the nearest subway but it’s not geared for other trips). We should have greatly expanded mass transit before giving permits to start building lots of multiple family dwellings.

  • HamTech87

    is transit really that bad on Staten Island? I once worked out there, and a lot of buses met the ferry.

  • Joe R.

    I don’t live in Staten Island but I think the situation might be similar to that in eastern Queens. To an outsider working here, they might think the transit isn’t all that bad. And it isn’t if you’re going to/from Manhattan, especially at peak times. That’s what it’s set up to do. You’ll see lots of buses connecting to the subways. However, try to use transit for regular trips within the area, especially during off-peak times, and you’ll change your tune. Many useful trips involve one or more transfers. Add in headways of 15 or 20 minutes and a trip of a few miles can easily take an hour or more. It’s no wonder a lot of people here drive for local trips. They could potentially bike those trips, but we don’t seem to want to do anything to encourage that in this part of the city. Yes, we’ve had some bike lanes added, but they’re mostly short, unconnected segments purposely put in places where they won’t affect parking or otherwise have much opposition. As such, it seems their sole purpose is to boost the number of new bike lane miles.

  • Sanjeev Ramchandra

    The best way to avoid exemptions is to use a sales tax instead of congestion tolling.

  • Joe R.

    Sales taxes are regressive. A congestion tax accomplishes two things. It brings in revenue, plus it reduces traffic. The time savings more than offsets the extra charges.

  • Sanjeev Ramchandra

    A congestion tax is more regressive than a sales tax. A sales tax is affordable and doesn’t require exemptions unlike a congestion tax. A sales tax has steady and reliable revenue that grows over time.

    The time savings only works if the congestion price is set very high but comes with its own costs (i.e., subsidies to address economic hardship and expenses to establish new service in transit deserts).

  • Joe R.

    First, most car owners aren’t poor. As a group, they’re wealthier on average than transit users. Second, since we’re talking about a charge to enter Manhattan, I’m not seeing what “transit deserts” have to do with anything. I live in eastern Queens, which is generally considered a transit desert. That usually means it’s often very time consuming to use transit for local trips, so people often drive instead. Since they’re not entering Manhattan, the congestion charge won’t apply to them. For those going to Manhattan, even in transit deserts mass transit is viable because it’s set up that way. Almost nobody who lives in my area and works in Manhattan is driving all the way in, even without a congestion charge. It’s much the same in other so-called transit deserts. The number of people who live in transit deserts and will be affected by this is minimal. Most of those who are can opt to either take mass transit all the way, or drive to the nearest bus stop or subway station, and take it from there. Very few people “need” to drive into Manhattan. It’s a luxury good, and should be treated and taxed as such.

    Note that even a small increase in traffic speeds can result in significant time savings. If a person spends 2 hours each way driving into and out of Manhattan, a 15% time savings will save them 36 minutes every day. At an average wage of $20 an hour, they’re ahead by $12, which is more than the anticipated congestion fee. Ideally, we should start with a fairly low fee, like maybe $10, then experiment to see what number it takes to ensure traffic is free-flowing at all times. That might be $100 during peak hours. It might be only a few dollars late nights. In fact, a variable charge depending upon time of day and existing traffic levels isn’t a bad idea.

  • Sanjeev Ramchandra

    Unlike a third world country, owning a car in NY does not make someone wealthy nor is it a luxury. Many middle class families own cars. There is not enough capacity and reliability on the trains, subways, and buses to accommodate an influx of drivers who switch to mass transit. That is why affordability is key for drivers so that they can still earn a living without hardship. Saving time does not result in increased pay as any additional time spent in traffic replaces leisure time not potential earnings.

  • Joe R.

    You’re grossing overestimating car ownership. See here:

    Notice how car ownership rates increase the further you get from Manhattan.

    Some middle class families own cars but most don’t use them to commute into Manhattan. That’s the key here. Nobody is charging for car trips which never enter Manhattan. That’s the bulk of the trips middle class families in this city take. A tiny minority insists on driving into Manhattan, often even when they have viable mass transit alternatives. That’s the group congestion pricing can get to change their behavior.

    Saving time does not result in increased pay as any additional time spent in traffic replaces leisure time not potential earnings.

    Economics 101. Time always has value. Time not spent in traffic can instead be spend earning overtime pay, or getting a second job. If the person chooses not to do either, that’s fine, but their time still has economic value. If people didn’t value time, why would they fly on long trips? Why not just take the train or a boat?

    For much of the group which congestion pricing will benefit, time has concrete value. I’m talking about delivery companies. If a truck can make 10% more deliveries because they hit less traffic, that delivery company can get by with 10% fewer trucks. The savings there will offset any congestion fees. Delivery companies are among the biggest supporters of congestion pricing. I understand why some private car owners might not like it, but the group of private car owners who drive into Manhattan is a tiny minority, and those who are poor is a minority of that minority. We shouldn’t let policies which have widespread benefit be killed by a minority, or more accurately an outlier:

    Just 4 percent of employed outer-borough residents (about 118,000) commute to jobs in Manhattan by vehicle, and only 2 percent of those who do (about 5,000) are considered to be poor, or living under the federal poverty limit.

    So we should let policy be dictated by 5,000 people in a city of 8 million?

  • Urbanely

    I completely agree about adding transit (and other resources) before upzoning. City planning, indeed!

  • Rider

    Staten Island might have gotten a subway if not for the feud between Mayor Hylan and Governor Smith in the 1920s, when Smith got the state legislature to block the city from building Hylan’s proposed combined freight-passenger rail tunnel under the Narrows.

    Since there haven’t been any significant railway expansions anywhere in town since those years, it’s safe to say that was the island’s last chance at a rapid transit connection to the rest of the city. I don’t blame the current residents.