Friday, December 25, 2009

No widening without tolls

As I wrote last week, the State and the City of New York have been underfunding the MTA for the past fifteen years, but they seem to have enough money that they plan to spend $500 million to rebuild the Brooklyn Bridge, $700 million to rebuild the Kosciuszko Bridge, $1 billion to rebuild the Goethals Bridge and $250 million to rebuild the BQE just south of the Brooklyn Bridge in Carroll Gardens. That $2.4 billion they plan to spend on the roads could fill the $400 million hole in the MTA budget for six years - or even pay back some of the MTA's crushing debt. And that's not even touching the $10 billion the state plans to spend to rebuild the Tappan Zee Bridge and a section of the Thruway.

Even worse, much of this money isn't even allocated for reconstructing the bridges or highways, but for widening them. As I wrote before, the State DOT is fond of lying about their control over a highway. They claim that the highways and bridges need to be "modernized" and "brought up to standards" for safety reasons, but each of these facilities is capable of carrying two lanes of traffic with plenty of room. They're only unsafe because the DOT has tried to cram three lanes in where there's only enough space for two.

In the case of the Major Deegan, canceling the widening saved the State between $100 and $170 million dollars, about half the cost of the project. If that's true of the other projects, we could save $1.2 billion just by doing that. Of course, nobody seems to know what happened to the money saved from the Deegan widening, so the DOT would probably try to hang onto that money and use it for highways upstate, but if the Governor were determined he could put a stop to that.

Whether it's $2.4 billion or only $1.2 billion, a big chunk will come from general sales and income taxes paid by people who don't even drive. With our current climate situation, to make transit riders pay to widen highways for the elites, worsening the air, wasting gasoline, increasing congestion and inviting more death and destruction onto our streets, is downright criminal.

If drivers are going to get good roads, and wider roads, they should pay something for them. At one point there were tolls on all the East River bridges and even the Kosciuszko's predecessor, the Penny Bridge. In 1911, Mayor Gaynor removed the nickel toll on the East River Bridges, apparently reasoning that the cost of constructing the bridges had already been raised. Since then we have had to pay billions to maintain and reconstruct those bridges.

"Gridlock Sam" Schwartz has proposed removing tolls from all the bridges in the city that don't either cross the Hudson or enter the Manhattan central business districts. As a compromise to get congestion pricing to pass, it might have been worth it, but without tolls on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro bridges, it would be a disaster, and in fact the lack of a toll on the Kosciuszko is still bad for Brooklyn and Queens.

Some people seem confused as to why the state and city would have to contribute to the MTA's funding. In part it's because we insist on such a low fare for the MTA, and in part because we contribute so much to the competing bridges. We should not continue to use general sales and income tax dollars to maintain and widen roads and bridges for people who think they're too good to take the train. If there isn't a toll on the East River bridges, there should be a toll on the Kosciuszko. And if the legislature won't agree to any tolls, then we shouldn't pay to maintain the bridges. Just close them, like the Champlain Bridge, until the drivers agree to pay.


Alon Levy said...

Be careful there. Today's highway advocates like tolls; they give roads a dedicated source of revenue, and allow them to be privatized. Much of the money behind Cox and O'Toole actually comes from toll road operators.

BruceMcF said...

This seems right - focusing tolls on expensive to maintain access points like bridges seems to be an effective strategy.

Cap'n Transit said...

I will be careful, Alon, but not to the point of letting myself be guided by guilt by association.

It is important that tolls be used as a replacement for government subsidy, not as a supplement. It is also important to not give the toll operators or toll payers a sense of ownership, as if they had a right to control the road or bridge because they pay for its operations.

saosebastiao said...

I don't like the idea of subsidizing anything really...just not in my nature.

But when it comes to subsidies, why is it so politically difficult to not subsidize driving? People have been shown to continue driving in huge numbers even when the price of driving increases dramatically! It should be a no can raise the price without causing people so much pain that they stop driving.

If I had to choose between raising taxes and cutting road subsidies, I can't imagine making the same choice our politicians do. Oh wait...they cant make the decision to raise taxes either.

CityLights said...

What I find the most ironic is that so many roads and bridges outside of the city are tolled, while roads and bridges in the city are kept free except to subsidize the MTA. It makes sense to toll the BQE, for example, simply to bring it in line with the other main transportation arteries, the NJ Turnpike and the NY Thruway.

Adirondacker12800 said...

The Port Authority is swimming in cash. They subsidize PATH, build things like Airtrain, run the bus terminals and kick in a third of the cost of the ARC project. They'll probably be the lead agency for the freight tunnel to Brooklyn. The Bayonne Bridge needs to be replaced by 2020. If the planners for that project get their way the tunnel that replaces it will also have space for an extension of Hudson Bergen Light Rail to Staten Island.

The Tappan Zee was a series of compromises brought about by the shortages of the Korean War. It needs to be replaced. It was built with tolls and will be replaced using tolls.