By Shirley Secunda
Published June 2012

Bottleneck: Downtown traffic overflows at the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan. Photo by Gene Secunda

Bottleneck: Downtown traffic overflows at the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan. Photo by Gene Secunda

For some time, many neighborhoods in Manhattan’s District 2 have been overrun by traffic from the Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. It blocks people’s access across streets and through the community, threatening their safety, filling the air with heavy pollution and loud abrasive noise, shaking up our fragile, historic infrastructure, and impeding the course of business. Roughly 250,000 motor vehicles a day enter Manhattan from the East River bridges. To examine whether bridge tolls might help curb this onslaught, Community Board 2 held a panel discussion (“Dealing with Downtown Bridge Traffic: Are Tolls the Answer?”), in conjunction with NYU’s Office of Government and Community Affairs (OGCA), on Thursday, May 10 at Casa Italiana.

The panel, Kate Slevin, Executive Director, Tri-State Transportation Campaign; Paul Steely White, Executive Director, Transportation Alternatives; Hope Cohen, Director, New York Program/Associate Director, Center for Urban Innovation, Regional Plan Association; and Charles Komanoff, transportation analyst and economist, addressed seven questions prepared to frame the discussion. These questions follow with the group’s commentary.

Q1: What are the goals and benefits of bridge tolls?

A1: Traditionally, the goal of bridge tolls was to raise funds to build bridges. Robert Moses introduced the use of bridge toll revenue to fund other projects. Benefits from bridge tolls include helping reduce congestion, air pollution and noise and create safer streets. There can be major benefits to transit if tolling money is used properly to fund it. Massive transit cuts saved MTA about $90 million a year, a fraction of what most collection estimates are for proper congestion pricing. Toll revenues could provide funds for such transit improvements as more and faster buses and bus boarding, faster subway travel and lower transit fares, all leading to more transit travel, which in turn would lead to saved time for drivers, faster CBD and non-CBD trips, and, with less driving, petroleum savings. Another benefit is improved maintenance. Bridges and tunnels around Manhattan are maintained by three different government organizations: Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), whose facilities are in the best condition because revenue is so high; Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) – Bridges & Tunnels, also collecting tolls, who are the second best maintained; New York City Department of Transportation (NYC DOT), with no tolls, whose “free East River Bridges” are the least well maintained, and really NOT free in terms of time (traffic) and maintenance.

Q2: Can tolls help reduce downtown bridge traffic?

A2: There’s a very scattered pricing system on the east side of Manhattan. Because of these pricing discrepancies, estimates show that 40% of drivers go out of their way to avoid tolls, causing uneven traffic patterns. You can’t just talk about East River tolls. On a typical weekday about 25% of vehicles cross the East River bridges. More than that cross 60th Street. If we don’t also toll at 60th Street, we will be leaving many dollars on the table needed to fund public transport. We also need to avoid the appearance of penalizing people outside of Manhattan. We need to toll the entire business district. Modeling has shown a $10 toll into the business district would result in an average decrease of 1/3rd of daily throughput of cars & trucks. This would result from weeding out of trips, ending of “toll shopping” and investment of revenue in public transportation that will create improvements that promote more use of mass transit. We know that pricing driving works from gas pricing. When gas prices go up, rides across crossings go down. Most of the really bad congestion is NOT in Manhattan. Most drivers complain about the BQE, Bruckner, LIE, etc., the highways into the central business district. Any political successful implementation needs to focus on those roads. The key reason congestion pricing lost comes down to the political argument about “privileged Manhattanites” wanting to keep people out of Manhattan. The only way to win the pricing war is to diffuse that argument.

Q3: How can we respond to concerns that tolls will penalize lower income users for driving into Manhattan?

A3: In 2008, Tri-State Transportation Campaign (TSTC) crunched census numbers and found that the annual average income for households without a vehicle was $32,000 a year and double that for those with vehicle access. Other cities have made provisions for those who have to drive. All outer borough commuters to Manhattan, 5.3 to 1, are taking transit. However, we have to have a healthy respect for taking $1-2 billion a year from an activity done by one group of people and transferring it to people doing something else. The concept of “Manhattan gilded fortress” is a real problem. Sam Schwartz has a plan that would include a taxi surcharge to address this. Manhattan would be #1 of all boroughs in terms of revenue if this were adopted.

Q4: What factors should be included in setting a toll pricing structure and method of collection?

A4: All crossings should be same price. True congestion pricing reacts to congestion, i.e., it’s time based. The Mayor’s plan had an $8 charge to cross during peak times; Sam Schwartz’s plan is $10 flat, but just trying to start a conversation. We would hope that cost would be more during peak, less off-peak. We’ve been focused on autos, but also shouldn’t forget different pricing for trucks. Trips would be priced depending on many criteria. Tolls on East River bridges would not be manually collected. EZ-Pass would be the primary collection mechanism. With no EZ-Pass, photos would be used.

Q5: Where do the funds collected from tolls go, where should they go, and how can we ensure that city and state elected officials dedicate the money wisely?

A5: NY State has taken transit money and put it into general funds in recent years. In the near term, we need legislation in Albany that requires an impact statement if money is diverted to make the process more transparent. Other proposals: The best way to protect money is give it directly to the MTA, bypassing Albany; setting up another entity within MTA to protect revenue; MTA revenues can be bonded to particular improvements. The surge in ferry and bus ridership and public bike-share are promising trends that will hopefully strengthen localizing revenue. The Sam Schwartz proposal is for 1/3 of funds to go to “fortify” roads for trucks and buses, which will benefit drivers, too. The bus system in NY is easier to expand than subway, so it’s another way to improve the transit system in near term.

Q6: Can you tell us what successful road pricing approaches other cities are using?

A6: In Singapore, London, Stockholm and Milan, among others, generally, the money is used to improve transit. The best analogies are right here in NYC: Bridges which are $10 are better maintained; we should apply this at all crossings. With EZ-Pass, you pay less at non-peak times for Hudson River crossings. Port Authority saw a 5-7% decrease in traffic during peak times (with tolls).

Q7: What can we do right now for tolls and new transit funding and who can champion this?

A7: This can’t be just Manhattan, but something other boroughs see as beneficial to them. Maybe we need “10 things Manhattan can do to promote congestion pricing.” We have to impress upon our government leaders our desire for them to be outspoken advocates for congestion pricing and a well-funded transit system.

Among the questions during the public Q&A session that followed were:

Q: Since the Cross Bronx, Bruckner and BQ Expressways are the worst problems, how do we get past the idea that this is a Manhattan problem?

A: This is not an issue that can be won by logic, but an emotional issue. People who own cars feel very strongly about cars. The key is to price where people experience congestion. If they pay more and don’t get a better ride, they will be unhappy.

Q: What is the best argument for a driver in the outer boroughs for backing congestion pricing?

A: Everybody will benefit because the transit system will be better and traffic will be lower as a result. Tolls will be “equalized” – not just raised. Some people asked about the continuing problem of the Verrazano Bridge one-way toll that results in more traffic into Manhattan. The answer was that if there were all-round tolling into Manhattan, the incentive for a “free ride” would disappear. There were many people strongly in favor of tolls, while others were strongly opposed to paying them, indicating the need to continue this conversation.

Shirley Secunda is the chair of the Traffic & Transportation Committee of Community Board 2, Manhattan. The above is based on a transcription by Jesse Erlbaum, a member of that committee.

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  1. […] city to pass a resolution in favor of congestion pricing, and has remained engaged on the issue, hosting a forum on bridge tolls in May. In an email, the BID said it is “not involved” in discussions related to road […]

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