Urban Futurists Root (Quietly) for East River Tolls

Few politicians would admit to being enthusiastic about putting tolls on the East and Harlem River bridges, but the same

Few politicians would admit to being enthusiastic about putting tolls on the East and Harlem River bridges, but the same cannot be said of urban planners, environmentalists or mass-transit enthusiasts. 

To be clear: The package that legislators in Albany are negotiating (or not negotiating, as the case may be) for the M.T.A. is about money, not urban planning. And it is also completely conceivable that it will not pass, even though the M.T.A. is facing a $1.2 billion budget gap, and threatening big fare increases and service cuts if Albany doesn’t provide help.

In the meantime, though, green-city types are quietly looking at the imposition of tolls as a catalyzing event—one that will break down existing barriers to other politically risky measures involving traffic congestion, air pollution or raising money from regular people for investment in mass transit.

“This was one of the few things seen as, sort of, the third rail,” said Marcia Bystryn, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters. “I think once that’s out of the way, you have cleared away an obstacle.”

There have been several proposals from Albany regarding the M.T.A. The one that seems to have gained the most support charges drivers $2 to use the East and Harlem River bridges and is the result of a compromise following the recommendations of the gray eminence of New York transportation, former M.T.A. head Richard Ravitch.

As of now, its fate remains uncertain, hinging on the votes of a number of holdout Democrats with competing ideas in the State Senate, a body in which Democratic leader Malcolm Smith, with his 32-30 majority, has become a permanent hostage to his conference’s most contrarian members. (More than one person interviewed for this article hesitated to say anything on the record for fear, in effect, of jinxing the toll proposal before it became law.)

But the fact that a proposal to impose tolls on the remaining free crossings into Manhattan has progressed this far is, in itself, somewhat remarkable.

What was demonstrated by the collapse of congestion pricing—the Bloomberg administration’s plan to follow a successful traffic-mitigation program in London by charging cars to enter what planners call the “central business district” of Manhattan—is that selling elected politicians on any plan to charge voters for something that was once free is a tricky thing, no matter the merits.

Resistance to tolling the East River bridges, which have been free since 1911, has been historically stubborn, although the idea of reinstating the tolls has come up in one form or another every 10 or 20 years for the last century. Only now, with genuinely dire finances plaguing the public transportation system and a state government in the hands of one (city-centric) party, has it actually come to look like a realistic possibility.

Unexpectedly, it has been the proudly obstructionist speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver—widely credited with the demise of congestion pricing—who rescued the whole idea of the tolls by proposing a $2 fee, just as David Paterson’s proposal, which initially put the price of the toll at $5, seemed headed to an inevitable defeat. By pushing for a $2 toll—importantly, for political purposes, the same price as a single-ride subway fare—plus a region-wide payroll tax, Mr. Silver kept the idea alive.

“We know what happens when we disinvest, because we did that in the ’70s,” said Dan Weiller, Mr. Silver’s press secretary. “And thank goodness for Dick Ravitch, who fixed it in the ’80s.”


Rethinking the Backlash

What is happening, transportation advocates say, is that the calculus is changing. If the toll measure passes, elected officials will have shown themselves willing to do something that is theoretically unpopular to achieve a worthy but decidedly unspectacular end (infrastructure maintenance). In this case, it will mean that the politicians’ concerns about the viability of the M.T.A. will have trumped their fear of backlash, primarily because of an awareness of what a decayed transportation infrastructure would mean for the economic health of the city.

As Mike Gianaris, an independent-thinking assemblyman from Astoria who opposed congestion pricing and originally opposed the East River tolls, told The New York Times late last month: “It’s not ideal and I don’t like it at all. But what I like less is the possibility of losing the W line, which runs right through my neighborhood, and losing a bus line.”

“What we’ve done by having the transportation system of the ’90s—as opposed to the ’70s—being safe and modern and working well is, we permitted people to continue to live in the city and find affordable housing, even if it’s at the edge of the outer boroughs,” said Professor Robert Paaswell, director of the University Transportation Research Center at CUNY’s City College. “But if transportation gets bad and it’s unsafe to commute, you’re going to lose some of the labor force that will choose no longer to commute into the city.

“The ’70s and ’80s taught us that the city cannot be healthy without a healthy transit system,” he continued. “And we don’t want to learn that lesson again.”

The tolls have been seriously considered numerous times since they were removed from the bridges in 1911. Mayor John P. O’Brien tried in 1933, and Citizens Union tried in 1953 and then again in 1959. The federal government issued an order for tolls in 1975 to combat air pollution, but Mayor Abe Beame’s administration fought for a different arrangement to meet the requirements. Michael Bloomberg’s congestion-pricing plan would have essentially achieved the same end, albeit for $8 instead of $2 or $5 (and only for part of the day), but famously failed even though by Mr. Bloomberg’s second term, the problem of traffic congestion in New York City was fairly apparent.

If the M.T.A. rescue does go through, it will be largely due to Mr. Ravitch this time, too. His tested wisdom in the field of New York City transportation has provided some political cover for those supporting the tolls.

“The speaker has stated pretty clearly that he’s not a huge fan of payroll taxes or bridge tolls,” Mr. Weiller said (it can likely be assumed there aren’t many huge fans), “but that those represent the best and fairest way to address this situation. And they also speak to the bigger idea that Dick Ravitch put forth, which is that everybody in the New York City area benefits from the public transportation system—not just the people who ride the subway or the bus or the commuter train. The costs of running those systems should be shared by all beneficiaries.”

A Novel Idea

While no one wants to say it exactly, the idea—that the cost of the M.T.A. should be shouldered not only by its customers, but also by employers whose employees use it to get to work, and drivers, who are spared from facing even more cars on the road because people take mass transit—provides a new frame for asking the public to spend money to support transit.

In a New York in which East River bridges stop being free—a New York that asks people to pay directly for something that benefits them indirectly—certain measures, like the commuter tax, for example, may look more politically palatable. So might revisiting congestion pricing, or issuing taxpayer bonds for capital improvements. And—though the elected proponents of the East River tolls would hardly say so publicly at this sensitive moment—so might the idea of gradually raising the new tolls on the East River in the future, if and when that seems to be a sensible thing to do.

Voters, of course, wouldn’t have to abide. But they might.

“I think once they’re on, I think they’ll be on and people will get used to them and then you can begin to open the door to raising the tolls, for example,” said Mr. Paaswell.

“The next generation really is more environmentally conscious,” he added. “It’s happening around the rest of the country, especially on the West Coast, so people will want more from their politicians. You’ll begin to see congestion pricing—congestion charging—not just to balance budgets, but to affect real urban policy.”

There’s no way to tell for sure what the political fallout will be if the toll measure passes, although there’s reason to suspect that, like the smoking ban that passed amid predictions of riots in the streets, it would simply become a fact of life like any other.


Silver Bellwether

Which is part of the reason that Silver’s compromise seems so significant now. Yes, his idea has drawn praise from big-picture types—groups like the League of Conservation Voters, the Empire State Transit Alliance and the pro-business group Partnership for New York City, and from Kenneth T. Jackson, history professor at Columbia University.

But Sheldon Silver is also not the type to stick his neck out. (There is a reason that he has lasted, at last count, more than twice as long as speaker of the Assembly as his recent predecessors in the post have.) His position in favor of the tolls is an early sign of just how unexceptional—and how politically safe—they may turn out to be.

“A rise in the subway fares will be at least as politically charged as the East River bridges,” said Mr. Jackson in an interview. “And I think the way they’ve placed it—that tolls should be same as the subway—kind of links the two in the public mind.”

Of course, the bridges have been free for a very long time now. And some opponents says it would be a significant mistake to erect an obstacle—even a $2 obstacle, and one applicable only to motorists—between the outer boroughs and Manhattan.

“The free East River crossings are important to the psychological and political cohesiveness of the city,” wrote Laura Rivera, a spokesman for the New York City comptroller, and toll opponent (and mayoral candidate), Bill Thompson. “That’s why the proposed East River tolls strike such a nerve among residents of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, and their opposition to East River tolls goes deeper than just the ‘pocket book’ issue.”

But it wasn’t always so. Mr. Jackson offered an explanation of why tolls came off those bridges in the first place, and how, with slightly more foresight, they might not have.

“You know, this is before the big inflation of World War I, which made the subway start losing a lot of money,” he said. “At that moment, in 1911, it still was not clear that a nickel fare wouldn’t sustain public transportation. It became clear right after World War I, in that public transit then really started to lose money in a big-time way.”

Referring to transportation planners, he said, “I don’t think they really realized that. And they wouldn’t have done it if they could have seen the future.” Urban Futurists Root (Quietly) for East River Tolls