Port Authority Toll Hikes Could Open New Congestion Pricing Push

The Port Authority’s proposed $4 toll increase on Hudson River bridges and tunnels is more than just a way to increase the agency’s revenue: It could be the catalyst to put tolls on the free East River bridges and impose congestion pricing.

A view of the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn; Outer-borough elected officials who said it was unfair to charge New Yorkers to cross into Manhattan quashed previous toll and congestion pricing plans. MetroFocus/SamLewis

People close to the discussions believe Gov. Andrew Cuomo will accede to a $2 toll hike despite his public protests. And once Cuomo establishes that a toll increase does not fall under his “no new taxes” pledge, these people believe that would lay the groundwork for a coordinated toll plan that would raise the price to enter crowded Manhattan but reduce it elsewhere.

“The bridge tolls will become the way to solve the MTA problem,” said one person involved in the long-term effort. “In this situation, it’s ludicrous to leave some of the bridges free.”

Publicly, the idea of charging drivers to enter Manhattan sputtered to a halt after proposals from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch died in Albany.

In the upper levels of the New York City region’s transportation agencies, however, leaders have for months quietly discussed how to impose a coordinated system of tolls that would raise money for transportation needs while also deterring drivers from entering the most crowded part of the city.

“You could have a rational system that tries to ease the burden in the outer boroughs while charging people who drive in and cause the congestion,” said one of those high-ranking officials.

Outer-borough elected officials who said it was unfair to charge New Yorkers to cross into Manhattan quashed previous toll and congestion pricing plans.

Now, the transportation leaders believe they could change the dynamic by cutting tolls on crossings between Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, focusing the charges on Manhattan commuters.

“The outer-borough leaders that fight congestion pricing are the ones that use the Whitestone and the Throgs Neck,” the official said. “Why do people in Staten Island have to pay so much?”

The model being considered was first proposed by “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, the former city traffic commissioner who runs a transportation consulting business.

His plan would raise all tolls into Manhattan below 60th Street to $13, charge drivers to cross 60th Street from uptown, and impose tolls for the first time on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Ed Koch Queensboro bridges.

The price at other crossings would stay flat or be lowered, to reward drivers who aren’t contributing to Manhattan congestion – reducing tolls at the RFK Triboro, Verrazano Narrows, Throgs Neck and Whitestone Bridges from $13 to $8.

“Lower the tolls on … all the connections between the boroughs other than the central business district,” Schwartz said. “And put tolls up where we need them, at the four East River bridges and the 60th Street screen.”

Schwartz calculates his plan would generate almost $1.9 billion, which could pay for road and bridge repairs as well as to improve mass transit throughout the city – solving the MTA’s dilemma of how to pay for its long-term needs.

Bloomberg would not take a position on the Port Authority tolls yesterday, and an administration official said while the city is not actively involved in the new stirrings for congestion pricing, it will not oppose it either.

“Watching closely,” the official said. “Monitoring closely.”

The plan is separate from another effort underway by transportation planners who are using computer models to try to build a new pricing system for drivers and mass transit commuters.

The Rockefeller Foundation gave a six-figure donation to help the planners’ work, but it is unclear whether their proposal will be able to find political support.

“How does transportation affect the ability of the region to grow in a sustainable way?” asked one person familiar with that effort. “It’s a way to invigorate a center city and bolster mass transit, which is what poor people use.” Read the full post at City Hall News.


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