NYC Congestion Fees May Succeed Where Bridge Tolls Have Failed

(Bloomberg) -- For motorists dreading New York City’s planned congestion-pricing fees to enter Manhattan south of 60th Street, an alternative may seem obvious: just add tolls to the bridges and tunnels connecting the island to the outer boroughs.

Politicians have tried and failed to do that for decades. The threat of losing voters from Brooklyn and Queens was enough to stop forward progress in the City Council. Another worry: that any money the city reaped from bridge tolls might merely encourage state lawmakers to cut funding for the spans’ upkeep and repairs.

The congestion-pricing plan would avoid that political tangle -- raising billions for transit and reducing traffic without imposing tolls on those spans.

“It would have been a lot heavier political lift to get the entire city on board by tolling each individual bridge,” said Joe Cutrufo, spokesman for Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group. “This is about fixing transit and making it easier for traffic to move. This was the best deal we were going to get given the political reality.”

Penny Toll

Lower Manhattan’s Brooklyn Bridge cost a penny to cross by foot and 10 cents per horse and carriage when it opened in 1883, By 1912 its tolls gave way to political pressure. Now the city has three more free bridges built more than 100 years ago across the East River -- the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges to Brooklyn and the 59th Street Bridge to Queens, renamed years ago for former Mayor Edward Koch. Drivers crossing the Harlem River between north Manhattan and the Bronx have more than a half-dozen free choices on less-known, yet heavily traveled routes.

Each has been the target of policy makers seeking to impose tolls on them, and each time opponents have swatted the proposals down. Then on April 1, congestion pricing got pushed along by the twin crises of a century-old subway system desperately in need of expensive repairs and a grid-locked Manhattan costing the regional economy billions of dollars a year.

Failed attempts at adding bridge tolls have a long history. In 1933, city Comptroller Charles Berry proposed a 10-cent toll on the East River Bridges, raising the ire of commuters from Brooklyn and Queens until Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia rejected it in 1934. Former Mayor John Lindsay suggested a 25-cent fare in 1966, only to back off a few months later when the Auto Club, a precursor to AAA, organized commuters against it.

Plan Died

The idea continued to surface through the 1970s and ’80s, and most recently in 2007, when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg considered and rejected it in favor of his own congestion-pricing plan, which died in the state legislature. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

“There was a feeling that tolling the bridges would open a Pandora’s Box, and if the revenue went to the city, it could cause the state to cut back on its infrastructure aid, forcing the city to use the funds for bridge maintenance, with none for mass transit,” said Bill Cunningham, a senior adviser to Bloomberg from 2002 to 2005.

The latest congestion pricing plan will set up electronic devices on the periphery of a zone south of Manhattan’s 60th Street to identify and charge all entering vehicles and assess a once-daily charge. Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio expect the program to raise $1 billion a year that could pay debt service on $15 billion of municipal bonds.

Driver Fee

The amount of the tolls -- and who will be exempt -- will be decided by a yet-to-be appointed board before the program begins in 2021.

“The theory is you toll the dense area where traffic is the worst,” said Mitchell Moss, director of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management.

“The original idea to toll the city-owned bridges met with opposition from voters in Brooklyn and Queens and could never pass the City Council,” Moss said. “This has a different sound to it: You’re not tolling the residents and the voters, you’re charging drivers. And you’re accomplishing the same thing.”

Tolling the several free bridges spanning the Harlem River would be unfair to the mostly low-income residents of the Bronx and northern Manhattan, said Bruce Schaller, a congestion-pricing advocate who supported the plan that lawmakers adopted April 1. Even though some of the bridges often carry traffic to and from Yankee Stadium, they are mostly used by local residents, Schaller said.

“Midtown Manhattan, that’s the Golden Goose, and it’s become an economic engine because the subway serves it,” Schaller said. “So it makes sense to charge drivers entering this congested zone, to make them pay to maintain and improve the subway -- the underlying infrastructure responsible for creating this dense, rich business core with its hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

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