Call It ‘Decongestion Pricing’

U.S. Congressman Jerry Nadler (center) and City Council member Margaret Chin (left) look on as MTA chief Patrick Foye describes a plan to reinstitute two-way tolling on the Verrazzano Bridge.
A gaggle of elected and appointed officials gathered on Staten Island on Sunday morning to announce their support for changing a decades-old tolling policy on the Verrazzano Bridge, which may have a significant benefit for traffic congestion in Lower Manhattan.

U.S. Congressman Jerry Nadler and City Council member Margaret Chin(both of whom represent Lower Manhattan) were joined by Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, and Patrick Foye, chairman and chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the agency that oversees the bridge, to trumpet the virtues of restoring two-way tolls on the span, which connects Staten Island and Brooklyn.

Although the bridge is eight miles away from Lower Manhattan, the tolling regimen has is a significant contributor to Downtown traffic patterns. According to a 2018 study performed by Sam Schwartz Engineering, collecting a toll for cars headed in both directions (rather than levying double that amount, but only on cars headed from Brookyln to Staten Island) could divert up to 130 cars per hour, during peak driving periods, away from Lower Manhattan.

This comes down to financial incentives. Traffic (especially large trucks, for which bridge and tunnel tolls are much costlier) seeks the path of least expense. As a result, each day, more than 1,000 trucks making a round trip between New York and New Jersey cross the Verrazzano on their way into the City, and then exit via the Holland Tunnel, which collects no toll on westbound traffic, but does charge for vehicles moving eastward.

Outbound Holland Tunnel traffic
This counter-clockwise vortex brings into Downtown’s already-congested streets many hundreds of trucks that would otherwise never enter Manhattan, but chose the route because the combination of the free East River crossings, such as the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges, with the Holland Tunnel, gets them to New Jersey free of charge. On the last leg of this journey, vast fleets of trucks use Kenmare, Broome, and Canal Streets as an interstate highway, on their approach to the Holland Tunnel.

The Sam Schwarz Engineering study notes that since 1986, when the Verrazzano stopped collecting tolls in both directions, and began charging a double-toll on westbound-traffic, both vehicular volume and statistics about accidents have spiked upward. Even in 1986, the effects of the change were apparent almost immediately. In the three years before the Verrazzano changed it tolls, one pedestrian was killed along Kenmore and Broome Streets. In the years that followed, the rate jumped to an average of one death per year.

And these metrics appears to be trending upward. Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group that aims to wrest control of New York City’s streets from the automobile and supports better bicycling, walking, and public transit, says that on Canal Street alone, there have been 13 pedestrian deaths since 2009, plus more than 120 pedestrian and cyclist injuries since 2013.

All of these would be made less awful, the study by Sam Schwartz Engineering argues, if the Verrazano’s toll was once again collected in both directions, which would remove the inducement to enter New York via that route, and make less onerous the cost of exiting the that way.

The Verrazzano Bridge is located more than eight miles from Lower Manhattan, but a 2018 study indicates that tolling patterns there have a significant impact on traffic congestion here.
Last July, Ms. Chin introduced a City Council resolution calling for two-way tolling on the Verrazzano Bridge. Ms. Chin’s resolution noted that while every other bridge or tunnel operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) collects tolls in both directions, “under the current system, drivers, especially those traveling between New Jersey and points in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island, can significantly minimize the amount of tolls they pay by entering the City via Staten Island and crossing the Verrazzano, then leaving via the free East River bridges, crossing Manhattan, and using the Hudson River crossings, which are only tolled in the eastbound direction.”

Ms. Chin’s resolution also observed that, “at the time it was enacted, the rationale for [the one-way Verrazzano toll] was to decrease congestion and pollution caused by traffic backing up in Staten Island,” but, “those concerns are now largely moot because cashless open-road tolling was introduced at the Verrazzano in July 2017, so drivers no longer slow down to pay tolls at tollbooths.”

The MTA says that the one-way toll on the Verrazzano (and the circular traffic pattern it creates among drivers seeking a free ride) costs the agency millions in lost revenue each year. Ms. Chin’s resolution also noted that, “this incentive to use inefficient routes costs the MTA much-needed toll revenue that could be used to support the region’s mass transit system and has been blamed for exacerbating congestion problems in areas such as Canal Street in Lower Manhattan.”

Under ordinary circumstances, a measure such as the one that Ms. Chin sponsored could be expected (if enacted by the full City Council) to result in changed policy, since both ends of the Verrazzano Bridge sit within the five boroughs of New York City. But in this case, the City Council, the Mayor, and even the Governor are all reduced to an advisory role, because the United States Congress enacted a law in 1986 prohibiting the MTA from collecting tolls in both directions on the span. This bill was sponsored by then-U.S. Congressman (and later Staten Island Borough President) Guy Molinari, in response to pressure from his constituents, who complained about air pollution from Verrazzano’s toll plaza.

It is that measure that federal legislators, led by Mr. Nadler and Ms. Velázquez now hope to overturn. At Sunday’s announcement, Ms. Chin said, “since the institution of one-way tolling on the Verazzano Bridge more than thirty years ago, Lower Manhattan residents have been subject to a continuous flood of vehicle traffic that has only delivered more congestion, noise and traffic safety issues to our overburdened thoroughfares.”
Matthew Fenton

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