CB1 Endorses Plan to Ease Downtown Traffic with Toll Modification Miles Away
Community Board 1 (CB1) has weighed in on a proposal to change a decades-old tolling policy on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, which may have a significant benefit for traffic congestion in Lower Manhattan.
Although the bridge is eight miles away from Lower Manhattan, its tolling regimen is a significant contributor to Downtown traffic patterns. According to a 2018 study performed by Sam Schwarz 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, as is the case now) could would 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 that for passenger cars) 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.
This counter-clockwise vortex brings into Downtown’s already-congested streets many hundreds of trucks that would otherwise never enter Manhattan, but choose 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.
A separate study, commissioned by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority — the arm of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) that oversees the Verrazzano — earlier this year, predicted that imposing a toll in both directions on the span would largely eliminate this perverse incentive, and estimated that the bridge would gain an additional 4,361 New Jersey-bound vehicles each weekday. Of this number, the report estimated, some 38 percent (or slightly more than 1,650 vehicles) would otherwise use the Holland Tunnel, meaning that they would travel through Lower Manhattan (primarily via Canal Street) to get there. Almost all of the remaining 2,700-plus vehicles, the firm estimates, would also pass through Manhattan, but use either the Lincoln Tunnel or George Washington Bridge to cross the Hudson River into New Jersey.
Somewhat surprisingly, the report also projected that the changed Verrazzano tolling policy would motivate approximately 4,325 additional vehicles originating in New Jersey to enter Manhattan each weekday via the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, or the George Washington Bridge. Of these, the firm estimates, 31 percent (or 1,340 vehicles) would come through the Holland Tunnel.
In net terms, this would amount to a daily decrease of more than 300 vehicles (many of them large trucks) using Lower Manhattan streets to enter of leave the Holland Tunnel each weekday.
A resolution enacted at CB1’s October 22 meeting notes that, “pedestrian safety, health and quality of life in the Manhattan neighborhoods located around the entrance to the Holland Tunnel and along Canal Street are severely compromised by the congestion, exhaust fumes, and noise that are related to one-way tolling on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge,” and concludes that, “CB1 strongly urges the MTA to implement two-way tolling on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.”
The 2018 report from Sam Schwarz Engineering also noted 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.
Under ordinary circumstances, a measure such as the one that CB1 has endorsed 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. (This makes the Verrazzano-Narrows the only bridge in the United States with a tolling policy mandated by the federal government.)
It is that measure that a coalition of elected officials, including U.S. Congressman Jerry Nadler and City Council member Margaret Chin, hope to overturn. In June, the U.S. House of Representatives enacted a spending bill that contained a provision ordering two-way tolling on the Verrazzano. That measure now awaits action from the U.S. Senate.
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