The mayor's shifting positions on East River bridge tolls illustrates the tension between the conclusions of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's analytical mind and the consequences of his political education.
Two years ago, Bloomberg's mayoral platform was sympathetic to bridge tolls. Once inaugurated as mayor, Bloomberg included East River bridge tolls in budget plans which assumed that "congestion pricing" would generate $100 million to $800 million annually.
That was the high-water mark of the mayor's support for this controversial concept. After Bloomberg closed the budget gap this spring with a heavy reliance on tax increases, his public opinion poll ratings dropped sharply. Facing growing unpopularity both citywide and particularly among Brooklyn and Queens residents who would pay the bulk of any East River bridge tolls, Bloomberg backed away from his toll plans. He dropped tolls from City Hall's budget plans and his spokesman said on July 9 that "the plan to toll the East River bridges is off the table."
The political realities and their consequences were clear. But as Bloomberg continues to think about the logic behind tolls, he does not completely shun the idea of at least someday tolling the bridges. The day after his spokesman said they were "off the table," Bloomberg clarified that "there is no current plan" to toll the bridges while also declaring that "we should consider all options down the road." In explaining his reasoning, Bloomberg focused on the practical problem that tolls could not be implemented in time to help the fiscal year 2004 or 2005 budgets.
The issue has not gone away. Two new reports on bridge tolls were released in late September and early October. The NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign and Transportation Alternatives, transportation advocacy groups, released a 58-page study (that I prepared) laying out the advantages of East River bridge tolls and issues that need further study. The Independent Budget Office released a report that assesses the potential revenues from both East River and Harlem River tolls, who would pay the tolls (mostly city residents) and the impact of possible exemptions.
Bridge toll advocates point out that "there is no such thing as a free bridge." The East River bridges cost taxpayers several hundred million dollars a year to maintain and operate, and $1.62 billion over the past 10 years to rebuild. These costs are paid by all city taxpayers whether or not they use the bridges. By contrast, motorists who use the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's tunnels and bridges to enter Manhattan pay a $3.50 toll. Likewise, subway and bus riders who use transit to cross the East River - which accounts for most of the trips crossing that body of water - pay the $2 transit fare. Only motorists on the city's four East River spans can cross for free.
Fairness would thus argue in favor of bridge users as well as others paying a toll or fare. East River tolls would raise somewhat over $500 million a year for city coffers and $100 million for the MTA, as some drivers switch to MTA crossings once the city bridges are also tolled. Harlem River tolls would generate $190 million a year in revenues. Toll revenues would cover the cost of maintaining, repairing and rebuilding the bridges, thus providing relief to the city budget. Some of the revenue could be used for other transportation improvements, including improved express bus or other transit services for Brooklyn and Queens residents who currently face lengthy transit rides into Manhattan.
Another argument for tolls involves traffic congestion. The free city-owned bridges have attracted a growing number of motorists who want to avoid paying the MTA tolls. The Brooklyn Bridge is the most affected. Traffic studies have shown that one-third of motorists entering Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge literally drive past the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to avoid the tunnel toll. Overall, tolls would reduce traffic on the bridges by about 25 percent, and reduce traffic in Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City by up to 14 percent.
Opponents of bridge tolls believe that they would divide the city, be bad for business and be unfair to Queens and Brooklyn residents. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, quoted in the Daily News, said that tolls would be a "tremendous economic burden on the businesses and residents of Brooklyn, many of whom are forced to drive because they have no other public transportation options." The head of the Brooklyn Academy of Music also opposes tolls, which she believes would discourage Manhattan residents from coming to BAM.
Councilmember John Lui, who represents Flushing, Queens and is chairman of the City Council Transportation Committee, wants to see improvements in subway and ferry services before tolls are considered. Quoted in the Queens Chronicle, Liu said, "you would be inhibiting people from Queens and Brooklyn from transportation into Manhattan, which is just not acceptable."
How the public feels about tolls depends on how they are asked. A Quinnipiac University poll in February 2003 found that 63 percent of New Yorkers thought tolls were a "bad idea." Yet asked in a July 2002 poll to choose among various ways to balance the city budget, 40 percent choose tolls over options of increasing taxes or increasing subway and bus fares.
Given the opposition, bridge tolls are unlikely to advance before the mayoral election in 2005. In the mayor's latest comment, he said, "Nothing should ever be totally taken off the table, but to do tolling on the bridges would require a lengthy environmental impact statement, it would require state legislation, it would be a long time before that could be implemented. Some of the effect of reducing traffic and that sort of thing would be ... a good idea, but I think, if you really look at it, it's not a short-term solution to our problems."
Thus, although still not entirely closing the door to tolls, Bloomberg's short-term focus on re-election means that he would rather talk about reducing taxes than talk any more about bridge tolls.
Bruce Schaller is Principal of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis to government, business and non-profit groups seeking to identify and meet customer needs in the transportation sector. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.