Finish the Job: Joe Lhota Wants to End Moses’s Triborough Legacy

Robert Moses may be dead, but the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority lives on.

Robert Moses may be dead, but the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority lives on.

Joe Lhota, it seems, wants to finish the job that Governor Nelson Rockefeller started. Speaking to the Staten Island Advance last week, the frontrunner laid out the most ambitious transportation proposal yet of the 2013 mayoral race: give New York City back its bridges and tunnels.

“The former head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority,” the editorial board wrote, “said that if he were to be elected mayor, he would seek to get full mayoral control of the bridges and tunnels in the city.”

Aside from the untolled East River bridges that belong to the city—the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro bridges—major river crossings between the five boroughs belong to the state, under the guise of the MTA Bridges and Tunnels.

This division retains the legal name “Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority,” a testament to Robert Moses’s iron-clad bond covenants and their origins as his primary source of power. He used these tax-free, oversight-free sources of revenue to fund the public works empire he directed from Randall’s Island, blanketing the outer boroughs and even the fringes of Manhattan with highways, parkways and transit-free river crossings. Through this slush fund he subsidized automobile travel in a city that had hitherto been almost completely dependent on mass transit.

In 1968, Gov. Rockefeller eventually succeeded where so many others had failed, and wrested control of the Triborough Authority, named after Moses’ signature spans, away from New York’s master builder. He directed the money instead to the newly created Metropolitan Transportation Authority, under the control of the governor, where it remains today.

If Joe Lhota gets his way, however, this may all change. The Advance framed the policy as toll relief—at least to Staten Islanders. Brooklyn and Queens motorists, though, could see tolls for the first time on their bridges. “Put all the bridges and tunnels under the control of one entity, namely the city,” wrote the Advance, “and we have a shot at genuine toll equity”—in other words, we’d be half way to congestion pricing.

But putting New York City’s bridges and tunnels under the authority of the city could also do something else, unmentioned by the Staten Island Advance: give the city a say in the MTA.

Currently the MTA is funded almost entirely through the state, through taxes and tolls, and the federal government, which gives out grants for capital projects. If the city regained the money that currently goes straight into MTA coffers—$940 million in 2011 after expenses, according to MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg—it could remit this back to the MTA, but with one crucial difference: the city would have the power of the purse, if not direct control.

Because the city is more dependent on the MTA than the state, it may be better placed to oversee to the agency. Self-professed “car guy” Andrew Cuomo, for example, has dragged his feet on replacing Joe Lhota as head of the MTA, and has made the Tappan Zee, not transit, his signature public works initiative.

That said, there are also reasons to be skeptical that the city would do any better than the state. Michael Bloomberg, for example, spent $1.4 billion in city money on the 7 train extension to the Far West Side, but did not put any pressure on the agency to spend it more wisely than it does on its other, non-city-funded projects. As a result of this inability to control costs—the 7 train extension, like all of the MTA’s other capital projects, is shockingly expensive when viewed against comparable projects outside of the United States—the extension lost its station at 10th Avenue and 41st Street, cutting its utility in half.

And the City Council is even worse. Its “oversight” sessions often devolve into parochial gripe fests by city officials with only the most tenuous grasp on how New York City transit works.

Then again, Joe Lhota obviously has more transit acumen than City Council and Mayor Bloomberg.

But aside from political concerns, there’s the question of how the city could, legally speaking, retake control over its bridges and tunnels. Moses’s skillful manipulation of bond covenants made even the MTA takeover difficult even back in in the ’60s. As Robert Caro detailed in The Power Broker, it may not have been possible were it not for the fact that Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s brother David was president of the Chase Manhattan Bank at the time, the largest holder of Triborough bonds.

But if Joe Lhota can get elected and surmount these obstacles—big ifs—then gaining control over the city’s bridges and tunnels might give him at least a modicum of control over an even bigger (though familiar) prize: the city’s subways.