Pols Tiptoe Around Plan To Revolutionize NYC's Toll System

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The Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges connecting Manhattan (left) to Brooklyn.

(New York, NY - WNYC) Rejoicing. Also dread. That's the response from transportation advocates to the latest funding vote from the leadership of New York's transit system.

The board of the NY MTA has approved $13.1 billion to fund the next three years of its capital plan. It will be financed mostly by debt: $7 billion from bonds and $2 billion in low-cost federal loans.

This means the agency is sticking with ambitious projects like the Second Avenue Subway (rejoice!) but a debt crisis looms if the agency doesn't find new sources of revenue soon (dread!).

And that's why money-making transportation ideas will not die, even if they're sure to face serious opposition, like the plan to put tolls on the historically free bridges spanning the East River. Such tolls would produce a dedicated revenue stream for the NY MTA, and that would reduce the political brinkmanship and deficit spending that characterize the funding agreements behind the authority's five-year capital budgets.

The latest version of the tolling plan, promoted by former NYC traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz,  would bring in an estimated $1.2 billion a year, two-thirds of which would go to the NY MTA. (Go here for details on how that money would be raised, and here for a PowerPoint version of the plan itself.)

After today's NY MTA board meeting, chairman Joe Lhota was asked whether he'd discussed the plan with elected officials. "I have not talked to anyone other than Sam Schwartz directly on the plan," he said. "So I don't know where it's going."

Then Lhota gently nudged the idea into the debate over long-term transportation funding. "I do believe that people are focused on this," he said. "It'll probably be a very big item during the mayoral race next year."

It's hard to know whether his prediction will come true but it's easy to see why he would want it to be so. The Schwartz plan envisions $8 billion a year in transit capital and $400 million for maintenance projects to keep the system in a "state of good repair." Being able to count on that money would make the planning side of Lhota's job a lot easier. And after all, smoothly functioning subways, buses and commuter trains are essential to the New York City economy. Why shouldn't mayoral candidates be discussing a plan that could stabilize their financing?

But the fate of any tolling scheme ultimately rests with the state. "I have not had any conversations with the governor... regarding Sam Schwartz's plan on congestion pricing," Lhota said later in the day. A spokesman added that, officially, Lhota  “has taken no position on the plan."

Of course that doesn't mean he's not rooting for it, at least a little. Governor Andrew Cuomo's office did not immediately respond with a comment on the issue.