It’s Time for East River Tolls

At a time when the city desperately needs money for transit, over a billion dollars in uncollected tolls and taxes is being withheld from the treasury by small minds in Albany and on the City Council. As this page has often pointed out, the city has been losing $500 million a year ever since, in a cheap political stunt for upstate votes that had the blessing of Governor George Pataki, the commuter tax of 0.45 percent was repealed in 1999. Now the nonpartisan Independent Budget Office has released a study indicating another untapped resource: the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro bridges, all of which are owned by the city and none of which currently asks motorists for a penny to traverse their spans. The I.B.O. says that a $4 toll on the four bridges would bring in about $500 million a year; meanwhile, the Regional Plan Association forecasts an annual return of about $710 million.

Added to a projected $500 million from a commuter tax, that’s $1.2 billion a year which could be invested in the city’s mass-transit infrastructure and in the M.T.A., which happens to be looking at a $12 billion deficit-and several fare increases and service cuts-over the next few years.

There’s no rhyme or reason why the four East River bridges should be free while motorists must pay $4 at the Triborough Bridge, the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and other river crossings. With EZ Pass technology, tolls can be imposed without delaying traffic. The resistance, of course, comes from car-owning residents of Brooklyn and Queens and their elected officials in the City Council and State Legislature. But there’s plenty of decent, safe public transportation into Manhattan from all the boroughs. And the city is already spending a bundle-$300 million-to repair the Manhattan and Queensboro bridges; it’s eminently fair to ask car owners to pay a toll for the privilege of using them.

Of course, if fairness were more than a platitude in Albany, the commuter tax would have been reinstated by now. The commuter tax was hardly prohibitive: Those making $100,000 were paying only $450. That percentage was in fact too low, considering how much time commuters-who pay zero income tax to the city-spend in the city under the protection of our police, fire and emergency-medical services. Commuters owe their jobs and high incomes to the city. It is only right that they be asked to pay a fair share for city services. Indeed, a more equitable commuter tax would be 1 percent, from which the city would realize $1 billion.

That means the total take from new tolls and a reinstated commuter tax could be as high as $1.8 billion.

The three people who could make this happen-Governor George Pataki, State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver-are opposed to new tolls, and have hardly been champions of the commuter tax. Taxes kill jobs, the Governor says. He’s dead wrong. Some taxes do-but not this one. And he has yet to explain why so many jobs were created nationwide after President Bill Clinton raised taxes in 1993, and why so many jobs have been lost since President George W. Bush began hacking away at taxes in 2001. Mr. Silver’s failure to support East River tolls is particularly disturbing, as he is allegedly the protector of the city’s interests in Albany. With friends like these …

New York Republicans: Is the Party Over?

If you think Democrats are the only people wringing their hands over this year’s election returns, you haven’t been paying attention to local politics.

Even as they celebrate President George W. Bush’s re-election, New York’s Republicans have reason to wonder where they’ve gone wrong. Not because John Kerry carried the state-that was expected-but because U.S. Senator Charles Schumer won re-election with more than 70 percent of the vote. Quite simply, the state Republican Party inexcusably gave Mr. Schumer a pass, allowing him to steam-roll the party’s sacrificial lamb, a (still) little-known Assemblyman named Howard Mills.

Now, political realists will tell you that Mr. Schumer simply wasn’t going to be beaten this year. While that’s true, the Republican collapse in the Schumer race had implications for its long-held control of the State Senate. Once recounts are finished, the party could wind up losing four seats in the State Senate, meaning they will control that body by just three votes in the new legislative session. The Democrats have momentum, and could very well wrest control of the State Senate in 2006.

What’s more, Republicans suffered defeats in various local races throughout the state, all because they chose not to contest Mr. Schumer’s re-election. Voters pulled the lever for Mr. Schumer and then continued down the Democratic column, with (for the Republicans) disastrous results.

With Election 2004 in the history books, the state’s political insiders turn their thoughts to 2006, when all three statewide offices-the Governor, the Attorney General and the Comptroller-will be on the ballot, along with the U.S. Senate seat held by Hillary Clinton. With that busy campaign season on the horizon, the state’s Republican Party is in utter disarray. The prospect of a smashing historic defeat can’t be ruled out, especially if Mr. Pataki chooses not to run for a fourth term. It’s ironic that while nationally the Democrats are adrift, in New York it’s the Republicans who have lost their purpose.

With Mr. Pataki as its putative head, the party has grown lazy and content with its control of State Senate and gubernatorial patronage. There has been no effort to nurture and promote young Republicans, no planning for the next generation of G.O.P. leaders. The party’s coffers are barren.

This is not good news for New York Republicans. But it’s just as bad for New York voters, regardless of their partisan affiliation. Democracy requires choice and opposition, but the Republicans in New York are so stagnant and broke that they could provide no real alternative to Mr. Schumer this year, and may be unable to vigorously oppose Eliot Spitzer’s anticipated gubernatorial campaign in 2006, or Mrs. Clinton’s re-election effort.

One-party rule inspires only corruption and cynicism. Just take a look across the Hudson River, where Democrats are in charge of everything that matters, and the state has acquired a deserved reputation as the bad-government capital of the country. Without serious Republican opposition, New Jersey has been sinking in a swamp of scandal.

That can happen-will happen-in New York unless the state’s Republican Party responds forcefully to its disastrous showing this year. The party has to start now. Mr. Pataki has to show the way.

New York Chicks Sweep Lit Award

New York has long been an incubator and nurturer of literary talent, from Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, Marianne Moore and Mark Twain to Tom Wolfe, Janet Malcolm and Norman Mailer. And this year, all five finalists for the National Book Award happen to be New York City residents. No scriveners from the wilds of Iowa, no wallflowers from Wisconsin, just soot-stained New Yorkers, in all their grit and glory. They also happen to be women: Christine Schutt, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Joan Silber, Lily Tuck and Kate Walbert. For the thousands of the city’s aspiring writers who at times might be tempted to give up on their manuscripts, quit their waitress jobs and look for an honest day’s work, this year’s finalists provide a robust endorsement of sticking with it.

There were, however, two curious omissions from the list: Philip Roth and John Updike, both of whom published impressive novels this year. One suspects that had each man not already collected his share of laurels from previous books, the judges would not have ignored our two acknowledged American masters. It’s Time for East River Tolls