I've got a lot of objections to "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz's plan to toll the East River Bridges and use some of the money to reduce tolls on the MTA bridges that don't go to Manhattan. I've talked about how Schwartz goes out of his way to provide "something for the drivers," but fails to give them what they really want: validation of the status that they sought by becoming drivers in the first place. Inadequate as it is, that "something for the drivers" may be too high a price to pay for tolls on the East River bridges.
Schwartz is talking about widening the Belt Parkway, the Staten Island Expressway and the Van Wyck Expressway. The "Bus Rapid Transit down median," as shown in the image above, would add capacity to the Long Island, Bruckner and Belt Expressways by moving the buses into a new separated lane.
There are people who are currently drivers, who have made Investments in driving like buying or leasing cars, or houses with garages and driveways, or houses or businesses in car-dependent areas. Some of them maybe should have known better, but given the blind eye that we've turned towards pollution, carnage and resource depletion, and the pressure that all of us have felt to Grow Up and Get a Car, because Families Need Cars, we can be sympathetic. I want to see something for those people. I don't know, twenty years of free transit for Nassau and Westchester?
I just don't want something for Drivers, that essentializes their decision to buy a vehicle, and that they can't enjoy if they then renounce driving. I also don't want something for future drivers. Any kind of massive government investment in driving will not just benefit existing drivers, but generations of drivers to come. We want future generations to walk and take transit, not keep driving.
The status quo is crazy. Let's just get that out there right away. This idea that there are two paths to prosperity, one for working class "real New Yorkers" that leads to an SUV and a McMansion in Spring Valley and another for "hipsters from Ohio" that leads to a cargo bike and a Park Slope brownstone, is false. Large lot, car dominated development is unsustainable, and we will bankrupt our city and state if we try to sustain it.
Schwartz's plan would sink a whole pile of this toll money into car infrastructure. Once that money is spent we will feel pressure to make it easy for people to use those roads in order to recoup our investment. They will also enshrine the precedent that we have to keep spending money on roads, and the toll money will continue to be supplemented with the sales and income tax dollars of people who don't drive.
Maybe Schwartz is playing some kind of game. After all, in 2010 his employees gave a talk in Chicago about the advantages of tearing down urban freeways (PDF). Maybe he's only pretending to be unable to imagine that only a tiny percentage of my grandchildren (his great-grandchildren) will want to drive. Maybe he thinks that getting the bridges tolled is the thin end of the wedge, and in twenty years we'll have enough political support to dedicate all the toll money to extending the subways out to Syosset. If so, he's a very good actor. But unless those new highway lanes are secretly built with hidden rails, ready to be unveiled at the implementation of Fair Plan Phase II, we'll be stuck with a lot of new roads to maintain.
The bottom line is that we are never going to get our pollution and carnage down to acceptable levels, maintaining our energy supply and our dynamic economy, and provide access for all to work, commerce and society, as long as our outer neighborhoods and our suburbs are dominated by cars and their infrastructure. We can't give those up for East River bridge tolls. It's just not enough.