Time for East River Tolls

It’s becoming clear that Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s visionary proposal for congestion pricing may be scaled back. A reasonable compromise, however, is very much on the table and deserves serious discussion. A state panel led by former Deputy Mayor Marc Shaw very likely will recommend that tolls be placed on four East River bridges as part of the scaled-back plan.

Yes, you’ve heard about this plan for almost as long as you’ve heard about the imminent arrival of the Second Avenue subway. Well, guess what: The Second Avenue subway is on the verge of becoming reality. Long-discussed plans to charge motorists a user fee on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Queensboro bridges ought to follow suit.

When toll proposals for the free bridges were under discussion decades ago, there were legitimate criticisms about the mechanics of toll plazas. It was feared that lines to pay the tolls would stretch for miles during rush hour, turning a hard commute into a motorist’s version of hell.

Today, however, technology has made it possible to design toll lanes that require no stopping, no time-consuming exchange of bills, no awkward searches for coins or tokens. The success of E-Z pass at the Holland, Lincoln, Midtown and Battery tunnels and at the Verrazzano-Narrows, Triborough and George Washington bridges shows that tolls can be collected without seriously impacting the flow of traffic. What’s more, the tolls on the bridges could be limited to peak hours if necessary.

Cries of resistance can be heard already from Brooklyn and Queens, where local politicians regard free vehicular access to Manhattan as nothing short of a Constitutional right, like rent regulation. They can fulminate all they want, but they ought to be careful about their suggestion that the tolls would discriminate against Queens and Brooklyn residents. In fact, if there are “victims” of discrimination here, surely they are the motorists who have to pay to use, say, the Triborough Bridge or the Queens-Midtown Tunnel while other motorists get to use the free bridges over the lower East River.

It’s estimated that tolls on the East River bridges could bring about $500 million a year into the city treasury, but at this point in the city’s history, money is not the sole reason to install toll barriers. Manhattan is choking on traffic. There simply are too many cars in midtown and downtown; the air is smoggy; business hours are lost, visitors and tourists depart in frustration. The toll plan could produce a decrease of nearly 6 percent in traffic. That’s a step toward a greener Manhattan and a greener city.

Brooklyn and Queens drivers have had a good deal for a long time, but the era of free bridges ought to come to a close. If they don’t want to pay the tolls, well, there’s a cheaper and greener alternative to driving: It’s called mass transit, and it works very well these days. Fares are only two bucks: a bargain! Time for East River Tolls