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Public Support for NYC Toll Reform Highest in the Suburbs

Since March, Move New York has made the case that its traffic reduction and transit funding plan can succeed in Albany. Proposing to raise car tolls in the transit-rich but congested Manhattan core while lowering them in more distant, car-dependent parts of town, Move NY seeks to avoid the political pitfalls that have sunk road pricing in the state capitol before. So how do the voters feel about this plan?

According to poll results Move NY released today, the plan is backed by a plurality of the region’s voters, 45 to 34 percent, with support stronger in the suburbs. When the plan’s benefits are explained, supporters outnumber opponents by a two-to-one margin, the group says [PDF].

Toll reform is more popular than Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan, according to new poll data from the plan's backers. Above, drivers exiting the Queensboro Bridge. Photo: Canadian Pacific/Flickr

Drivers exiting the (free) Queensboro Bridge at Second Avenue in Manhattan. Photo: Canadian Pacific/Flickr

The poll, conducted by Global Strategy Group over seven days in November, surveyed 1,003 registered voters in the 12-county MTA service area. It has a margin of error of 3.1 percent, with a greater margin of error in subsamples. Move NY did not share the poll’s exact phrasing or cross tabs, saying they “will have to remain proprietary.”

Move NY is proposing to add tolls on the East River bridges and across 60th Street while lowering charges on outlying MTA crossings. The plan would raise $1.44 billion annually, with three-quarters going to transit capital and operations and the remainder set aside for bridge and highway maintenance. The plan could play a critical role in filling the $15.2 billion gap in the MTA’s capital plan.

Other recent public opinion data on toll reform came from Quinnipiac in June. In that poll, 49 percent of New Yorkers were opposed and 41 percent in favor of a “toll swap” similar to the Move NY plan. (The Q poll mentioned adding East River tolls but did not mention a toll at 60th Street, a key component of the Move New York plan.)

It’s difficult to say how the Move NY proposal stacks up against the 2008 congestion pricing plan in terms of public opinion. When framed as a “charge” to drive in Manhattan below 60th Street, congestion pricing typically polled in the 30s in Quinnipiac polls from that time, but when people were asked what they thought of preventing fare hikes by implementing congestion pricing, support shot up over 60 percent.

But according to the Move NY poll, the fair toll plan now enjoys a distinct advantage: Just 22 percent of the region’s voters back the Bloomberg-era congestion pricing plan in the new poll. When told about the fair tolling concept, backers outnumbered opponents, 45-34, with support strongest among voters in Long Island (52 percent) and the northern suburbs (48 percent). After respondents received more detail about the exact toll changes to each crossing, support rose to 56 percent, with 36 percent opposed.

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Cheaper Gas and Uber Have Manhattan Gridlock Poised to Get Worse

Traffic gridlock in Manhattan has been on the wane for some time. Newly released 2013 traffic counts from the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council show 747,000 motor vehicles entering the Manhattan Central Business District on a typical weekday. While that still constitutes a crushing load, it’s 5,000 fewer cars each day than in 2012 and a drop of 80,000 daily vehicles from the apparent peak year of 2004. As a result, average CBD traffic speeds are on an upswing, from 8 mph in 2006 to 9-9.5 mph in 2012. (Sorry, no figures available for 2004 or 2013.)

A one mile an hour rise is just statistical noise on a fast highway, but summed across hundreds of stop-and-go city blocks over thousands of hours it generates genuine value and significant time savings. Not surprisingly, public aggravation over traffic congestion appears to be less pronounced today than a decade ago. And tellingly, the Move NY toll-reform plan is making headway as much for its promise to fill the funding gap in the MTA capital plan and to bring about “toll equity” by lowering tolls on the MTA bridges, as for its potential to bust gridlock by charging a fee at every CBD entrance and exit.

Nevertheless, I’m betting that Manhattan traffic is about to worsen. The reasons can be spelled out quickly: cheaper gasoline and Uber.

Let’s start with the price of gas, which has already fallen below three bucks a gallon after averaging about $3.60 nationally in 2013 and $3.70 in 2012. Unlike some prior falls that proved transitory, this one looks like it could have staying power owing to the boom in U.S. production, the stutter-stop world economy, and Saudi Arabia’s disinclination to curb production to stabilize prices.

Though conditions vary greatly (especially parking costs), I estimate that a dollar a gallon drop in pump prices would shave 6 percent off the cost of a typical CBD commute. That correlates to an additional 12,000 or so motor vehicle trips to the CBD, on top of the current 640,000 baseline. (My baseline figure differs from NYMTC’s 747,000 because I adjust for through-trips that NYMTC counts as two entries; note also that the rise would be 20,000 but for the “rebound” effect of new trips crowding out some current trips.)

Then there’s Uber. Smartphone-hail services like Uber and Lyft have established a beachhead in the for-hire vehicle industry in New York and other cities. Though solid data isn’t available, these companies appear to be expanding rapidly, and not necessarily at the expense of the traditional yellow-cab and livery sectors or the new green cabs that have expanded the zone of legal street hails. Rather, Uber appears to be creating brand-new demand for travel by motor vehicle, especially within the high-gloss citadel of finance and fashion, the Manhattan CBD.

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Fair Tolls: Fixing NYC’s Gridlock and Transit Shortfall in One Fell Swoop

moveny_graphic

The Move NY Fair Plan sets tolls at all East River crossings and 60th Street at the same amount, while lowering tolls on four outlying MTA bridges. Graphic: Christina Roman, Sam Schwartz Engineering

When Governor Nelson Rockefeller merged New York’s commuter rail lines, the NYC Transit Authority, and Robert Moses’s Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority to form the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1968, he had several motives. The new agency consolidated political power, made more efficient use of regional infrastructure, and devoted surplus bridge and tunnel toll revenues to rescue a faltering transit system.

That last idea, making drivers pay for transit, had a powerful logic, since drivers themselves benefit from viable transit that prevents stifling traffic jams. But the original set-up had a built-in flaw: New York’s tolled crossings compete with free bridges.

Today, almost half a century later, this formula is broken. “Toll shopping” is exacerbating gridlock in communities on both sides of the free East River bridges and throughout the Manhattan central business district while eroding MTA revenues. Meanwhile, the MTA needs a new revenue stream to fund its next capital plan, but current users of its crossings are balking at soaring tolls while adjacent bridges remain free.

Excluding the Port Authority-controlled Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, an estimated 1,733,000 car and truck trips are made into or out of the CBD or on a major MTA bridge each weekday. Each trip that crosses the CBD boundary imposes, on average, two hours of aggregate delay on all other drivers (more during rush hours, less during off-peak hours). Yet only 604,000 — 35 percent — of those 1.7 million-plus trips are tolled: 458,000 on the MTA bridges plus 146,000 through the MTA’s Queens Midtown Tunnel and Brooklyn Battery Tunnel (see graphic).

The remaining 1,129,000 trips — of which 445,000 enter or exit the CBD via an East River bridge while 684,000 cross 60th Street — pay nothing. (These and other figures in this post are derived in my Balanced Transportation Analyzer Spreadsheet [PDF].)

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The Move NY Fair Tolling Plan Is Polling Better Than Congestion Pricing

Toll reform is polling better in New York City than congestion pricing did, even when pollsters don’t mention that the Move NY plan would mean billions in transit revenue.

Capital New York’s Dana Rubinstein reports

“Would you support or oppose a plan to charge tolls on the East River bridges, which go into Manhattan, and at the same time reduce tolls on the bridges between the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island?” a Quinnipiac University pollster asked New York City voters earlier this month.

The voters were divided, 49 percent against, 41 percent in favor.

Support fluctuated by borough — it was strongest in Staten Island and the Bronx — and was about the same among voters who drive to work (51-43 percent opposed) and those who take transit (49-42 percent opposed).

These are stronger numbers than congestion pricing got in 2007 and 2008. The proposal for a road charge below 60th Street in Manhattan during rush hours polled in the 30s, generally, when transit revenue was not mentioned. Pricing polled in the high 50s and low 60s when it was framed as a way to keep fares low.

The Move NY plan, developed by transportation consultant “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, would establish a Central Business District cordon at 60th Street and add tolls to East River bridges, while tolls on outer-borough crossings would be reduced. The plan calls for removing the Manhattan parking tax rebate and adding a taxi trip surcharge. It would raise nearly $1.5 billion a year, with a quarter of revenue dedicated to road and bridge maintenance and the remainder to transit capital and operating funds.

Congestion pricing has risen in popularity in cities that have implemented it. Despite intense opposition beforehand, after three years 70 percent of Londoners said that city’s road pricing program was effective, and twice as many supported the charge as opposed it. Though it doesn’t yet have a champion in Albany, a coalition of interests, from the Straphangers Campaign to AAA New York, has coalesced behind the Move NY toll reform proposal. There’s room for its poll numbers to climb, if the upside for transit is part of the framing.

Here’s another figure for state lawmakers to consider: In 2007, 87 percent of voters said traffic congestion was a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem. This month it was essentially unchanged at 86 percent.

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Instead of Reforming NYC Tolls, Ruben Diaz, Jr. Proposes Soaking the Bronx

Like the Tea Party adherents who are always going to equate walkability and sustainable transportation with a global UN conspiracy, some New York City electeds are always going to call road pricing “regressive” no matter how much the evidence suggests otherwise.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr.

But Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. really ought to know better. Diaz has a piece in the Daily News attacking the Move New York plan, which would inject some reason into New York’s tolling system by raising rates in the congested heart of the city and lowering rates on less-trafficked crossings farther from the core, yielding significant funds for transit in the process. Not only would Diaz’s counter-proposal do nothing to solve the chronic traffic congestion that makes trips miserable for bus riders — to raise as much revenue as the Move NY plan, his proposal would also end up costing Bronx residents a lot more than toll reform.

Unlike the dyed-in-the-wool road pricing opponents New York got to know so well in 2007 — the Richard Brodskys and Lew Fidlers — Diaz doesn’t represent the region’s car-oriented edges. More than 60 percent of Bronx households don’t own cars, according to the 2000 Census [PDF].  The allegation of a “regressive tax” collapses when you consider that the average car-free household in the Bronx earns less than half as much as the average car-owning household.

Even in terms of the cost to drivers, though, the Diaz approach doesn’t add up. Diaz says it’s a certainty that the Move NY toll discounts on outer borough bridges won’t last. So that’s how he can dismiss the 40 percent or larger drop in rates on all four of the Bronx’s tolled bridges. But the Move NY plan needs enabling legislation from the state to move forward, so the new toll ratios would be enshrined in law.

Taking a page from Fidler, Diaz does float a counterproposal — a weight-based vehicle registration fee — that’s supposed to signal that he really does care about transit, but is destined to go nowhere.

To raise the same amount of money as the Move NY plan, about $1.45 billion per year, the registration fee assessed in the five boroughs would have to be raised by $785 per vehicle, reports Move NY analyst Charles Komanoff. Because car ownership is higher in the Bronx than in Manhattan, the Diaz proposal would actually cost his constituents much more than Move NY.

In the Bronx, the average cost per household would work out to $390, according to Komanoff, but just $187 per household in much wealthier Manhattan.

This is a significantly worse deal for the Bronx than the Move NY plan, which calls for Manhattan residents to shoulder a much greater share of the costs. Probably not what Diaz wants out of a transit funding plan.

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Congestion Pricing Foes Sit Down at the Table With Fair Toll Advocates


After years of meetings and tweaks, the Move NY fair toll campaign launched this morning with a simple message: With AAA and trucking interests at the table beside transit advocates, reforming New York’s broken toll system actually has a shot. It’s a different beast than the congestion pricing plan that Mayor Bloomberg pushed for six years ago, with more obvious benefits for New Yorkers who don’t live in Manhattan.

The coalitions are shaping up differently this time, backers noted during a series of panel discussions this morning. ”Last time around there was a feeling that this was being shoved down people’s throats,” said Move NY campaign director Alex Matthiessen. “We have staunch opponents of previous pricing plans with us.”

“It’s a pleasure working with the other side here for a change, instead of being in our own corners,” said AAA New York’s Jon Corlett. Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, compared sitting down with AAA to Nixon visiting China.

Why are these groups willing to work together? The Move NY plan, developed by “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, has some big carrots for motorists while still reducing congestion and funding transit. The plan would charge everyone driving into Manhattan below 60th Street, while outer-borough crossings with few transit options nearby would see a toll cut. It also asks Manhattanites to pay up by removing the borough’s parking tax rebate and adding a surcharge to taxi trips. The plan would raise almost $1.5 billion annually, with a quarter of it going to road and bridge maintenance. The rest would go to transit in the form of both capital funds and operating assistance.

The exact mix of projects that would benefit remains to be determined, but Move NY advocates say they would like to focus on filling outer-borough transit gaps through a mix of bus and rail expansion, funding things like a new transit route on Staten Island’s north shore, additional Bus Rapid Transit lines, and new Metro-North service in the eastern Bronx to Penn Station.

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You Know What’s Fundamentally Regressive? NYC’s Current Toll System

manhattan_traffic

You can drive into the center of town and clog up the streets without paying a dime, but you’ve got to pay a fare to ride the bus.

Well, a few words from Andrew Cuomo made clear that fixing NYC’s broken road pricing system won’t be on the table before next year’s statewide elections. But some opponents of congestion pricing — notably, Eastern Queens City Council Member Mark Weprin — are warming to Sam Schwartz’s toll reform plan, which calls for a uniform price on entry points into the Manhattan core, including the East River bridges and 60th Street, paired with lower prices on less congested, outlying bridges.

And so, the Times turned to former Westchester Assemblyman Richard Brodsky for a dash of his trademark fake populism:

Among former critics of ideas to toll the East River bridges, reactions to this one have been mixed. Richard L. Brodsky, a former Democratic assemblyman and a senior fellow at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, said Mr. Schwartz’s plan was “a fundamentally regressive tax,” even if equity problems among the boroughs were “addressed to an extent,” at least compared with the 2008 plan.

“It will modify the behavior of the guy driving the ’97 Chevy,” Mr. Brodsky said, “but will do nothing to modify the behavior of the guy driving the 2013 Mercedes.”

It’s telling that Brodsky imagines his working-class stiff as “the guy driving the ’97 Chevy.” It’s not “the guy riding the R train” or “the gal transferring from the Q60 to the M15.” Transit commuters far outnumber car commuters in NYC and earn, on average, far less, but they never figured into his message.

Brodsky, who hasn’t held office since a failed run for attorney general in 2010, represented the wealthiest Manhattan-bound car commuters in the NYC region. He wasn’t looking out for regular Joes — he was defending free driving privileges for white collar elites earning, on average, $176,231 per year.

He also managed to obscure a core truth about NYC’s current toll system: It doesn’t work for the little guy. We are right now at this very moment living under the burden of a “fundamentally regressive” toll plan — it’s the status quo we’ve had for decades. It’s regressive that a few people in single-occupancy vehicles can clog streets and immobilize hundreds of less affluent people riding buses. It’s regressive that wealthy car owners can drive into the center of the city without paying a dime, while transit riders have no choice but to pay higher fares because the MTA capital program is backed by mountains of debt.

Reforming NYC’s road pricing system will make the regional transportation network more equitable in profound ways. It will speed up the surface transit that less affluent New Yorkers rely on, improving access to jobs. And by injecting funds into the MTA Capital Program, it will help improve the transit system without fares eating up a bigger chunk of household budgets.

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IBO: MTA Fares on Pace to Rise 50 Percent Over Next Decade

The 2009 MTA funding package passed by Albany included a plan to increase fares and tolls every other year. The most recent of those fare hikes, implemented in March, increased fares 8.4 percent, with the MTA anticipating another increase in 2015. If this pattern continued for the next decade, fares would rise 50 percent, to $3.75 per ride, according to an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office requested by NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign [PDF]. Unless city and state leadership act, fares will drastically outpace the inflation rate, even as crossing the East River bridges and driving to the most congested, transit-rich part of the city remains toll-free.

Under the MTA's current funding model, fares are set to outpace inflation, according to the city's IBO. Photo: Darny/Flickr

After the introduction of the MetroCard, which brought free bus-to-subway transfers in 1997 and unlimited ride passes in 1998, the average fare paid by riders, adjusted for inflation, fell by more than a third between 1996 and 2002. But since then, “increases in the average fare have outpaced inflation,” IBO says, and the initial gain for straphangers is set to be wiped out by 2027.

If fares kept pace with inflation, the base fare would be $3.25 in a decade — 50 cents less than the IBO projection, which forecasts fares rising 15 percent faster than inflation.

Burdened by debt-financed capital spending and rising health care and pension costs, the MTA’s expenses keep rising, and it has fallen mainly on straphangers to foot the bill.

“Constant fare hikes will overburden riders, discourage use of mass transit, and cannot be sustained over time,” Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign said in a statement, calling on Governor Cuomo and the legislature to find a solution.

The MTA is under the governor’s control, but a funding solution also needs support from the city’s political establishment. The city’s contribution to the MTA hasn’t increased since 1993, and the value of that contribution has decreased due to inflation. So far, many of the mayoral candidates have been eager to push the funding burden to people who don’t vote for them, by supporting the unlikely reinstatement of the commuter tax. Even John Liu’s bridge toll proposal would give city residents a free ride.

More realistic funding solutions have only attracted the attention of Democrat Sal Albanese, Independence Party candidate Adolfo Carrión, and Republican George McDonald, who have all endorsed a plan to toll traffic on bridges entering the busiest parts of Manhattan, while lowering tolls on bridges between the outer boroughs.

Given the mounting pressure on straphangers, which has received some attention from the Daily News and Times editorial boards recently, it’s time the other mayoral candidates step forward with some realistic proposals.

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John Liu Releases a Bridge Toll Plan That Panders to Motorists

So John Liu has managed to take an excellent idea — tolling the East River bridges — and turn it into a policy disaster.

The key component of Liu’s plan, which he says would raise $410 million annually, isn’t the tolls — it’s the exemption for city residents. Here’s what Liu said at an Association for Better New York event today:

To get that money, we would toll the East River Bridges for non-city residents. It’s something that’s been talked about before, and I think certainly makes sense, and is more realistic than a restoration of the commuter tax — that I would love to see, but I’m not sure how open Albany would be.

Of course, Albany is just going to fall in love with a toll plan where Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester pay, while New York City doesn’t.

Here’s an excerpt from the press release that accompanied the release of the ”People’s Budget” — an overall fiscal plan that Liu released in his capacity as comptroller:

Tolling the East River Bridges would mean that membership — or in this case, residency, New York City residency — has its privileges. Non-residents commuting by car can and should contribute to the upkeep of our city’s infrastructure.

By exempting motorists who live in the five boroughs, Liu’s plan would not solve the city’s transit funding problems — the next MTA capital program will still have a gaping hole. (Compare Liu’s $410 million to the $2.8 $1.5 billion projected net revenue from the Sam Schwartz plan.) While Liu suggested devoting revenue to “infrastructure,” he also mentioned that it could be used for “offsetting increased city contributions to the MTA,” which might just lead to tolls that pad other areas of the city budget.

It’s somewhat baffling why Liu would propose a non-starter like this. Exempting millions of motorists negates the value of tolls as a tool to meaningfully reduce congestion, and it undermines the notion that motorists should pay for using roads. Let’s hope this idea doesn’t infect the other campaigns.

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This Weekend, NYC’s Traffic Dysfunction Gets Worse

As of this weekend, driving over the free East River bridges will be a bigger bargain for drivers, adding to NYC's traffic dysfunction. Map: Sam Schwartz

In case you missed it, Crain’s ran a good piece today wherein “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz explained one of the less-publicized effects of the MTA fare and toll hikes slated to take effect this weekend. NYC’s already-dysfunctional road pricing system is about to make even less sense.

With tolls on the MTA’s East River crossings going up in each direction, the incentive for drivers to take the free Queensboro, Williamsburg, Manhattan, and Brooklyn Bridges is about to intensify. Schwartz told Crain’s to expect a lot more toll-shopping drivers on streets that are already choked by traffic:

“Today I would estimate 50,000 cars, trucks and buses [crossing the free bridges]. On Monday, I’m estimating 60,000—another 10,000 will switch, and only aggravate the situation at the free bridges,” Mr. Schwartz said. “They vote not with their feet, they vote with their tires.”

“What we have is a bridge like the Ed Koch-Queensboro Bridge sandwiched between two toll crossings—the Queens Midtown Tunnel and the Triborough Bridge,” he said. “And every time there’s a toll increase, more and more drivers hop off the Long Island Expressway at Van Dam Street to avoid going straight ahead to the Queens Midtown Tunnel, and then they just saturate the streets of Sunnyside and Long Island City, snaking their way to the lower level or the upper level of the Queensboro Bridge.”

To add to the Queensboro Bridge example, in addition to the western Queens neighborhoods that have to put up with all the extra congestion, exhaust, and honking on their streets, bus riders will get the short end of the stick. Every day 16,000 bus passengers ride over the Queensboro Bridge. Their trips are going to get more sluggish and unreliable after this weekend.

Until the governor and other electeds step in to fix NYC’s broken road pricing system, the dysfunction will only get worse.