Are East River Bridge Tolls the Better Way to Go?

Writing for the Brooklyn Rail, Carolyn Konheim overviews the legacy of "Tammany-style" former Brooklyn Democratic leader Meade Esposito, and posits that the deceased "capo di tutti capi in New York politics" still exerts influence on city transportation policy.

Konheim, who is a proponent of tolling the East River bridges, argues that Esposito's record of protecting motorist privilege eventually led to what she calls "an unnecessarily costly structure of Mayor Bloomberg's otherwise crucial initiative to get New Yorkers out of their cars and onto better subways and buses."

196052319_81c7d56b16.jpgThe Mayor's congestion pricing brain trust, including purveyors of high-tech traffic detection, saw in London's on-street charging system a way to make an end-run around what they saw as the lingering Meade mindset regarding bridge tolls. Ignoring the recent comprehensive studies about the effectiveness of various scenarios of tolling the free bridges, the mayoral team proposed a charging system entirely in Manhattan that had a single political benefit.

For years, planners have advocated a London-style cordon, which would run across the 60th Street boundary of the Manhattan Central Business District, river to river, and impose tolls at all river crossings leading to the CBD. Instead, the Mayor's plan calls for thousands of camera and E-ZPass monitors at hundreds of sites around and within the charging zone. The internal charging stations are intended to charge car trips that begin and end within the zone a fee of $4 per day, and charge trucks $21.

When the Deputy Mayor of London was told about charging intrazone fees, she said, "It's complicated enough with a single cordon. Why would you want to do that?" Whereas London only charges residents of the charging zone a 10% fee on re-entry and trucks the same as cars, the Mayor's plan banks heavily on intrazone trips for revenues. Without any explanatory data, it's difficult to discern if the forecasts account for the more than a third of intra-zonal trips that are by taxis or livery vehicles and would be exempt from any fee. Most of all, there is no accounting for the cost of operating a network of multiple charging cordons, which will surely exceed the 42% collection and enforcement cost of London's single cordon system, possibly adding up to more than half of gross revenues.

The bottom line is that an unnecessarily elaborate congestion charging network will reduce revenues for transit to about $250 million a year. In contrast, installing E-ZPass monitors on the four free bridges and across 60th Street would likely net more than $500 million a year for transit and more reliably garner the desired benefits in reduced congestion and faster commutes. These revenues would increase as MTA tolls increased and could be dedicated to improving transit service, not keeping transit afloat.

Can the need to circumvent Meade Esposito's legacy be worth the loss of $2.5 billion over a decade in revenues for transit? Or will the fact-finding process over the coming months reveal what makes a pricing system that equalizes tolls on all entries so effective: it benefits motorists with faster travel everywhere; it provides transit riders with the most revenue for transit; and it boosts local economies by freeing up road space for drivers with local destinations.

NYC Director of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability Rohit Aggarwala discussed why the city decided not to propose tolling the East River bridges in part two of our interview series.

UPDATE: The 2003 analysis of bridge tolls by the "two-man team" mentioned in Konheim's article is available here (PDF).

Photo: Docman/Flickr