Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Escaping the Tappan Zee bridge toll death spiral

In January, Charlie Komanoff warned of a "Tappan Zee Death Spiral," similar to what happened to passenger rail in the middle of the twentieth century. Without taxpayer money, Charlie doesn't see a way to pay for a $5 billion bridge that doesn't involve tolls at least as high as $9 and more likely $16.

Charlie is not the first person to note this paradox. As a Merrill Lynch-led consulting team reported to the State in 2009, with any toll increase, some drivers will choose to take transit to work instead, or to work somewhere else, or both. If the tolls go over $13, Charlie predicts that so many people will avoid driving over the bridge that total revenue will not be enough to pay for bridge maintenance plus loan repayments. If the State raises the tolls again to cover those payments, that will drive more people away, which will bring total revenues down further, until the state is forced to default on its loans.

As I've written before, in any rational universe you actually want people to work closer to home and take transit more. You definitely don't want to put the state in the position of being more dependent on ever-increasing volumes of car traffic to make these payments. That's like getting your family addicted to cocaine so that you can support your own habit by dealing to them. Talk about a death spiral.

Nicole Gelinas at the Post echoes a point I made last year: that not only are the State's traffic projections bullshit, but we will probably see a decline in car volumes independent of the bridge toll levels, especially if the price of gas continues to rise.

So what would be a rational solution? Both Gelinas and Ben Fried at Streetsblog seem to be inching towards the one that I proposed back in November. What if we doubled the tolls and didn't build a bridge? Here's what seems likely:
  1. Car traffic would go down. Charlie Komanoff's spreadsheet suggests that if we double tolls, we'll see a 30% reduction in car volumes.
  2. Maintenance costs would go down. I haven't been able to find a breakdown, but three of the biggest maintenance cost items are wear and tear from the sheer number of vehicles, crashes from the narrow lanes, and running the machine that flips the center lane from eastbound to westbound and back. A 30% decline in car volume would let us restore the earlier, safer, more sustainable configuration.
  3. Bus fare revenue would rise. Gelinas, ever the libertarian, worries about the subsidies required to run buses over the bridge, but if she just remembers her supply and demand she can stop worrying.
  4. The state would have more toll revenue. If we can avoid death spiral territory, the toll increase will bring in more overall revenue, which can be used for bridge maintenance or bus subsidies.

Last week Cuomo's chief of staff Larry Schwartz gave some scary numbers about how tolls would have to rise to $12 even if the bridge is not replaced. As with transit, Cuomo and his staff are inflating the costs of alternatives they don't like and lowballing the costs of their preferred alternative. Their cost estimates include the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council's outdated and laughable projections for population, job and driving increases in the area, as well as continuation of the inefficient, homicidal seven-lane bridge configuration. Notably, the projections don't take into account the effect that tolls can have on traffic volumes.

The best thing to do would be to tear down the bridge. It's a cancer in our midst. But if nobody is willing to support tearing it down, the next best thing is to raise tolls without rebuilding the bridge.


The Amateur Transporter said...

News 12, the local cable station, asked shoppers whether they would pay a $14 toll to reach a store on the other side of the TZ Bridge. 84% (!) said "no".

The Palisades Mall, on the Rockland side of the bridge, is a huge shopping destination for Westchester residents.

Alon said...

Did Westchester run out of space for a mall of its own, or something? Or are people in Tarrytown just being NIMBYs? I guess it's better to drive over an expensive bridge and be the traffic that everyone bitches about than to have traffic in the same minor civil division you live in.

Adirondacker12800 said...

Cash toll for the Port Authority crossings is 12 dollars. [use a sarcasm font here] Traffic has just evaporated.

Unknown said...

Hi Cap'n Transit,

Good day! I'm a reporter with The Epoch Times that covers transit. I've written about the bridge multiple times. I've also read your coverage periodically and think it should be the focus of the next story- really analyzing whether the bridge is needed or not. Could we do a phone interview later this week?

Zachary Stieber