The Tolls Bell for Thee, East River

A world-class city in the 21st century deserves a world-class transportation system. For too many years, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has failed to provide New York with  subway, bus and train service beyond the merely adequate. Unable to manage its finances and control costs internally, and hobbled externally by Albany’s stubborn refusal to green-light revenue-producing ideas such as congestion pricing and a commuter tax, the M.T.A. now finds itself facing a financial crisis as real as those faced by General Motors or AIG or Citigroup.

Which is why we’re heartened to see Albany moving closer to approving tolls on East River and Harlem River bridges, an idea supported by Governor David Paterson and sketched out last week by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. The plan would impose a $2 toll, equal to the cost of a subway ride, and is projected to generate $450 million a year in revenue. The money would improve efficiencies by allowing the maintenance and rehabilitation costs of the bridges to be absorbed by their users. Moreover, the toll revenue would help support the city and region’s overall mass transit and commuter system, the lifeline of the city and surrounding communities.  

Of course, the opposition to tolls on these bridges is fierce. Many legislators in the State Senate and Assembly will waste no time in calling down a plague upon anyone who dares ask their outer-borough constituents to hand over two bucks for the privilege of bringing a vehicle into Manhattan. For those legislators hammering together their populist soapboxes, we would say that to pit Manhattan against the other boroughs is a silly waste of everyone’s time; Manhattan is the financial and cultural core of the city, and the other four boroughs’ fortunes rise or fall depending on how Manhattan is doing.

We urge the Senate majority leader, Malcolm Smith, to stand beside Speaker Silver in showing real leadership on this issue. The cost of doing nothing is huge. With a projected $1.2 billion deficit for this year, the M.T.A. will have to continue cutting service, raising fares and allowing subway stations to degenerate into squalid disrepair

The tolls should not obscure an equally crucial issue: The M.T.A. must be disabused of the notion that it can continue to operate without seriously controlling its personnel expenses. The authority’s leadership needs to find a way to get its workers to absorb a greater share of health care and pension costs. Handing the M.T.A. money must not be an excuse to avoid putting its own house in order.