Lamenting the Loss of East River Tolls, Advocates Hearken Back to Days of Yore

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Former NYC traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz hands a symbolic 1911 dime to a "toll taker" on the Manhattan side of the Williamsburg Bridge. (Jim O'Grady/WNYC)

Transportation advocates drove antique cars to a wooden toll booth they had set up on the Manhattan side of the Williamsburg Bridge Tuesday morning. Among them — in bow tie and straw hat — was former New York City traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz.

He eased his roadster to the booth, stopped and pointedly proffered a dime to pay a toll that had been abolished 100 years ago to the day.

That was the last year anyone paid to cross the city's four East River bridges — and Schwartz and his allies in Transportation Alternatives and The Straphangers Campaign said eliminating tolls has cost the city $31 billion in inflation-adjusted revenue, part of which could've been used to maintain the Williamsburg Bridge.

"Every one of those steel beams is new," Schwartz said, gesturing toward the bridge, which underwent a top-to-bottom renovation lasting more than a decade. He was making two points: that maintenance is expensive, and the way the city has managed its East River bridges has been near-disastrous.

The new beams on the Williamsburg Bridge replaced old ones that had become so corroded by the 1980s, the city closed the bridge.

At the same time, the Manhattan Bridge was shaky enough that trains were prevented from crossing it.

On the Brooklyn Bridge, a cable snapped and killed a tourist.

It was only then that the city paid for repairs to all of the East River bridges. Transportation advocates says its poor management to let infrastructure nearly fall apart before fixing it.

"I came here to lament the roll-back of the tolls 100 years ago,"said Brooklyn artist Taliah Lempert, bicycled to the symbolic toll booth event. "The tolls are necessary to take care of the bridges and to help finance public transportation in the city."

In other words, tolls pay for all kinds of mass transit. With the MTA facing a more than $10 billion gap in the capital construction side of its budget, some planners have again raised the possibility of East River tolls, or even congestion pricing, as a revenue stream for transit.

But this driver, who was in too much of a hurry to give his name, spoke for others when asked about that as he waited for the light to turn and cross the Williamsburg Bridge: "No, no, no, no. No tolls. None. None whatsoever."

He was feet away from the vintage automobiles and advocates demonstrating for a return of the tolls. But on policy, as befits the divide between drivers and transit riders, he was miles apart.


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