Crossing Guard

City Council member Margaret Chin has introduced a resolution calling for two-way tolling on the Verrazano Bridge. Although the span, which connects Brooklyn and Staten Island, is located outside of Ms. Chin’s district, such a move could have a dramatic impact within Lower Manhattan, which she represents. A recent study, performed by Sam Schwarz Engineering, estimates that 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 would divert up to 130 cars per hour, during peak driving periods, away from Lower Manhattan.

While the connection between traffic south of Canal Street and a toll on a bridge eight miles away may seem less than obvious, it 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 Verrazano 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.

Ms. Chin’s resolution notes that while every other bridge or tunnel operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) collects tolls in both direction, “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 Verrazano, then leaving via the free East River bridges, crossing Manhattan, and using the Hudson River crossings, which are only tolled in the eastbound direction.”

Traffic entering the Holland Tunnel from Canal Street

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 Verrazano 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 Verrazano 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.

Since 1986, the Verrazano Bridge has (at the order of the United States Congress) collected tolls only on vehicles traveling from Brooklyn to Staten Island, while those moving westbound are charged nothing.

Ms. Chin’s resolution also observes that, “at the time it was enacted, the rationale for [the one-way Verrazano 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 Verrazano in July 2017, so drivers no longer slow down to pay tolls at tollbooths.”

The MTA says that the one-way toll on the Verrazano (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 notes 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 is sponsoring could be expected (if enacted by the full City Council) to result in changed policy, since both ends of the Verrazano 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 Verrazano’s toll plaza.

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