NYC Bridge Tolls: The Solution That Won’t Go Away

Is 2010 the year of bridge tolls? Or will it be 2011 or 2012? If the editorial boards and political insiders are even half right, New York State appears to be back on the brink of an epic fiscal crisis. Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch said today that the state faces a deficit of $9 billion to $18 billion next year. 

"In my personal view, we have been eating our seed corn and we face terrible terribly difficult choices," Ravitch said. "Not moral choices. Political choices, social choices of unprecedented variety... You're talking about cutting, not just fat, talking about cutting to the bone."

If he's right, and he probably is, the MTA budget will take yet another whack next year. This is a big problem since the agency is already likely to cut service in 2010 to pay for the shortfalls it had to absorb in 2009. The under-performing MTA payroll tax, which is hugely unpopular in the suburbs, only aggravates an already bad situation.

The really big underlying problem is that regardless of how much the MTA cuts service, it faces rapid increases in "uncontrollable costs" like pensions, health care and Access-A-Ride. These unfunded legislative mandates exert a huge drag on the agency, which is partly what Mayor Bloomberg alluded to yesterday when he called the MTA a "piggy bank."

The net result is that without a new source of funding, the MTA will soon run out of money and options. Let's take it for granted the MTA will be forced by Albany to engage in desperate new financial sleight-of-hand and "seed corn eating" (capital money going to operating expenses, borrowing against future fare hikes). Let's further assume the MTA will have to accelerate the fare hikes planned for 2011. If this comes to pass, in about a year the MTA will be out of options and have to cut service so harshly that even Albany will be forced to care.

It will be a political slug fest worth watching. How deep will service have to be cut before the East and Harlem River bridges are tolled? Are tolls dead, or are they actually inevitable?