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Tony Avella Finds It “Offensive” to Say the Truth About NYC’s Toll System

In his quest to preserve free driving privileges over the Queensboro Bridge, State Senator Tony Avella seems to be having a hard time rounding up the old gang.

Photo: NY Senate

Photo: NY Senate

Yesterday, Avella tried to pick a fight with Council Member Mark Weprin, a fellow legislator from northeast Queens who opposed the 2008 congestion pricing plan but backs the Move NY toll swap proposal.

In an interview on NY1 Tuesday night, Weprin said it’s unfair to hike tolls and fares for everyone except the people who get to drive into Manhattan for free each day. “Every time the tolls go up, everyone’s costs go up. Every time the subway fares go up, people’s costs go up,” he said. “The only people who don’t pay extra are the people who use those free bridges right now to go to work. And most of those people are rich people who can probably afford to drive into the city. The average guy taking the subway, their costs keep going up.”

He’s right: Fewer than 20 percent of the 3.7 million people who travel to Manhattan south of 60th Street every day arrive by car, taxi or truck. Outer-borough residents who commute to Manhattan by car have household incomes 34 percent higher than the average New Yorker, according to Census numbers crunched by Move NY. The bottom line: The toll, which is capped for commercial vehicles, would fall on more affluent New Yorkers.

Tony Avella finds this offensive.

“I demand an apology from Council Member Mark Weprin for his outrageous comment,” Avella said in a press release. “This statement completely ignores the small businesses and commuters of all income levels who utilize these bridges on a daily basis and for whom added tolls would be a hardship… The legislature must take into consideration the middle and low-income New Yorkers who rely on these free bridges day in and day out.”

Avella and Weprin engaged in a Twitter back-and-forth in which Weprin distilled Avella’s position like so:

 

“Apology?” Avella tweeted back.

What makes Avella’s position even less defensible is that he’s rejecting a plan that would cut tolls in half on the Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges — both of which are within his district.

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The Politics of NYC Toll Reform — What’s Different This Time?

Next month’s MTA fare and toll increase will be the seventh hike in 15 years, noted “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz this morning. ”But there is one traveler that hasn’t seen any change in the cost of travel,” he said. “And that’s the person that drives into Manhattan.”

All eyes on the governor: What will he say about the Move NY fair tolling plan? Photo: Governor's Office/Flickr

One person could put toll reform in play instantaneously: Governor Andrew Cuomo. Photo: Governor’s Office/Flickr

Schwartz was speaking at the public launch event for the Move NY “fair tolling” plan, which aims to dramatically reduce traffic while funding improvements to the region’s transit system (get all the details). The core of the plan is to charge for driving in Manhattan below 60th Street while reducing charges on outlying bridges. After years of careful preparation, Move NY made the case this morning that its plan is not only smart policy but a political winner.

The main message from Move NY was that its plan is unlike past congestion pricing or bridge toll proposals, which did not adjust prices on outer borough bridges. “AAA is now working with us on this plan, so we have some strange bedfellows,” Schwartz said. “The bed is getting larger. I think we’ve got something going.”

The coalition supporting Move NY includes groups like the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce and the New York State Motor Truck Association that either opposed congestion pricing in 2008 or sat on the sidelines. Move NY’s most recent polling indicates that a plurality of the region’s voters are in favor of the plan, with support highest in the suburbs.

“I’m as outer borough as you get, and I indeed was an opponent of the 2008 plan,” said Council Member and former Assemblyman Mark Weprin. “[The Move NY] plan is about, how do we increase the benefit for the outer boroughs?”

Weprin said this shift has made the plan more appealing to most (though not all) elected officials. “I definitely know they have more support than they had last time, just in my conversations with my colleagues,” he said. “This plan is about helping the outer boroughs. The 2008 plan, in my mind, was about helping Manhattan.”

In the Move NY plan, three quarters of the additional revenue generated by the toll swap would go to the MTA, leaving a substantial chunk for roads, which could appeal to legislators who opposed congestion pricing. (Unlike earlier drafts, the final plan does not spell out specific road projects to spend on.)

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The Complete Guide to the Final Move NY Plan

moveny_plan

Click to enlarge. Graphic via Move NY

After years of fine-tuning, the Move NY coalition has released the final details of its plan to reduce congestion and fund transit by reforming New York City’s dysfunctional toll system [PDF].

We’ll have a full report from the launch event later today. In the meantime, here’s a breakdown of the proposal in all its detail.

Who Would Pay What?

The plan creates a consistent toll for drivers to and from Manhattan south of 60th Street, while lowering tolls on outlying bridges. The idea is to charge the most where congestion is worst, aligning road prices with demand for road space and dramatically cutting traffic.

Cashless tolls at 60th Street and on the East River crossings would be approximately double what’s charged on major outlying bridges. Driving into or out of the Manhattan central business district would cost the same as tolls already on the Queens Midtown and Hugh L. Carey tunnels, which are $5.54 each way for E-ZPass, or $8 without. Instead of cash, the tolls would be collected by license plate readers or mobile applications. (Just 17 percent of existing MTA bridge and tunnel drivers pay with cash.)

Drivers on the MTA’s major outlying bridges — the Triborough, Whitestone, Throgs Neck, and Verrazano Narrows — would see tolls drop by 45 percent, or $2.50 each way, to $3.04 with E-ZPass or $5.50 without. Tolls on the “minor” outlying bridges — the Cross Bay, Marine Parkway, and Henry Hudson – would drop by $1.00 in each direction.

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Margaret Chin: Toll Reform Will Protect New Yorkers From Truck Traffic

Photo: Brad Aaron

Photo: Brad Aaron

City Council Member Margaret Chin today introduced legislation to require the city to examine the effects of New York City’s dysfunctional bridge toll system on traffic safety. The bill would also mandate regular DOT safety audits for all city truck routes.

Trucks account for 3.6 percent of vehicles on city streets but are involved in 32 percent and 12 percent of cyclist and pedestrian fatalities, respectively, according to city data cited by Chin. At a press conference outside City Hall this morning, Chin said her bill “should be welcomed by the [de Blasio] administration as a component of Vision Zero.”

Chin cited the un-tolled Manhattan Bridge as a major cause of traffic chaos on Canal Street, which cuts through her district. Drivers have killed at least four pedestrians on Canal Street since 2012, according to crash data compiled by Streetsblog.

Chin’s bill would have DOT conduct studies at five-year intervals to “examine the impact of tolling policies on the city’s network of truck routes,” according to a press release. Crashes and traffic violations would be measured, with information collected on whatever street safety measures are implemented on each route. DOT’s last comprehensive truck route study dates to 2007, the press release said.

It's free

Trucker’s special: It’s free to drive over the East River, barrel across local Manhattan streets, and take a tunnel under the Hudson, but sticking to the highway and going over the Verrazano will cost a five-axle truck $80. Map: MoveNY

DOT would also be required to “develop new strategies” to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety along the city’s 1,000-plus miles of truck routes. Council Member Brad Lander pointed out that current truck route design — speed-inducing expanses of asphalt — leads to reckless driving regardless of vehicle type. Chin emphasized that the reports should lead to physical street safety improvements. 

City Council transportation chair Ydanis Rodriguez joined Chin to announce the legislation, along with Lander and Jimmy Van Bramer. Representatives from Transportation Alternatives, Families For Safe Streets, Move NY, the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation, and Manhattan Community Boards 1, 2, and 3 also appeared in support of the bill.

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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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