Staten Islanders are no stranger to ridiculously high tolls to return home. The Verrazzano Narrows Bridge, for non-residents of Staten Island, is a whopping $19 per trip. This is a huge number, and has generated a major surplus for the TBTA and MTA. All of the bridges that were constructed in New York City were built with the expectation that they would reduce commuter traffic on the existing bridges and tunnels. This was true for the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge and the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, both of which actually did nothing for existing traffic, diverting no cars onto these new bridges, but instead generating brand new traffic, in some cases at far above the engineering capacity of the structure. This is according to the supplementary legal documents for the decision in the case of Molinari v NY Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority, 838 F Sup. 718 (E.D.N.Y. 1993)
Every new construction, including the second level of the VN Bridge, had the outcome of generating additional traffic, traffic that had not been there before on another bridge or tunnel, but was brand new. So, the new construction had the effect of encouraging more commuters to take their cars, instead of taking the public transportation, which at that point was in a major state of disrepair. To remedy this situation, New York State Legislature created the Metropolitan Transportation Act of 1968. According to the decision referenced above, “under the umbrella of the MTA, the operations of the toll generating bridges and tunnels of the TBTA and the public authorities that operated the subways and the commuter and bus lines were effectively merged.”
This law effectively mandated that most of the surpluses generated by the tolls collected on the bridges and tunnels operated by the TBTA be transferred into a fund that was to be used solely for the operation and repairs of the subways and bus lines. This occurred in 1967, and it is little wonder that since then, the subways and bus lines have become much cleaner, and much more modern. So, each year, starting in 1967, the TBTA was to take $24 million, plus half of its operating surplus to the Transportation Authority for use on its operating and other expenses, and the remainder was to be transferred to the TA for the payment of any other operating expenses. So, in other words, the surpluses of the TBTA were to be used for the funding of all improvements, as well as for the day to day operation of the subways and buses.
The subway and bus system of New York City from that time to now has gone from one of the worst to a usable and very well maintained system. However, it should be understood that, in general, Staten Islanders have NO access to the subway system at all, and the bus system on Staten Island is woefully inadequate for the residents of the island as well, as anyone who relies on the bus system to get around will tell you. Long wait times, off-schedule buses, and more have been the bane of Staten Islanders for a very long time. While this has improved some, with the new apps and bus stop signs that give a much more accurate picture of the time of arrival, it is little more than a marginal improvement. The extremely high toll on the VN Bridge, as a whole, does nothing to directly support those residents of Staten Island who are forced to use it, and benefits only those residents of the other boroughs who have an actual working subway system.
In addition to this VN news, there is more bad news. The Port Authority of NY and NJ has also just announced a toll increase to its bridges. Cashless toll users, who would have previously just paid cash at these bridges, will now see their toll increased from $15 to $16. This includes all of the bridges and tunnels run by the Port Authority. So this increase applies to the Outerbridge Crossing, Goethals Bridge, Bayonne Bridge, Holland Tunnel, Lincoln Tunnel and George Washington Bridge. E-ZPass holders will have to pay $11.75 (up from $10.50) at off-peak or non-rush hour times, and $13.75, up from $12.50 during peak, or rush hour, times.
While Staten Island residents are seeing only a small increase for the applicable three bridges, which are the Bayonne Bridge, the Outerbridge Crossing, and the Goethals Bridge, of about 40 cents per trip, non-Island residents will see a large increase in their tolls, both peak and off-peak hours. The off-peak discount has also been reduced in order to increase toll revenue further.
However, the Port Authority, in this increase, has also decided to raise the number of required crossings to qualify for the Staten Island Resident Discount Program from 3 trips per month to 10 trips per month. The resident program does not provide the discount simply based on residence of the Island, as it should be, but instead it is based on residence and the number of trips. If a resident of Staten Island only uses the bridges 7 times in a month, they pay the same toll price as residents of every other area. This, too, seems incredibly unfair and quite burdensome to the residents of Staten Island.
The tolls on these bridges have gone to fund a number of things that don’t benefit Staten Islanders’ transportation needs at all. First, the World Trade Center Memorial and Freedom Tower building were funded with toll-paying islanders and commuters. Second, the LaGuardia airport terminals were rebuilt. Most Staten Islanders do not fly out of LaGuardia, but instead fly out of Newark Airport. At least that airport terminal will also be rebuilt, but how many times do we need to use an airport that justifies having to pay so much for the toll to get home?
An additional project that does not benefit Staten Islanders but which our tolls are going to pay for is the LaGuardia AirTrain, a monorail whose costs keep ballooning, with the support and push of Gov. Andrew Cuomo behind it. Originally proposed to cost $450 million, the cost ballooned to $1.5 billion, and now it is $2.05 billion.
The other items that are stated in the Port Authority of NYNJ’s press releases as having been evidence of progress, were not actually funded by these tolls. This causes one to wonder where the money is actually going. The Bayonne Bridge Raise the Roadway project was largely funded by the federal government, to the tune of $1.7 billion. The Goethals Bridge, which is also listed as “Tangible Progress” on the Port Authority’s press release page, was also not funded by the toll increases, or by the toll-paying public at all. It was funded by private investors in a private-public partnership, along with federal loans. Since this agency has no transparency, being a private corporation in the public trust, it is unknown where the money that it has collected from the tolls has actually gone. It is often difficult to get the company to even release that information to government officials, as evidenced by a FOIA request and subsequent lawsuit in 2012 by Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis. Since the items listed as having been funded by the toll increases of the past were not, in fact, funded by the tolls collected, many have often wondered what the Port Authority has done with all of the money they have collected.
It is likely that the George Washington Bridge project and the replacement of the Port Authority Bus Terminal will also be paid for, in whole or in part, by federal or private funds. This means that the Port Authority does not have to use the toll money that they collected to pay for these improvement projects, even though they list them as “Tangible Progress,” or, in vernacular, ‘where your toll money goes.’
For whatever reason, the courts have decided time and time again (both in cases brought by AAA, and Susan Molinari in 1993, and AAA again later) that the bridges and tunnels that connect interstate areas as well as intrastate areas, such as the TBTA and Port Authority bridges, are just and reasonable, no matter how they calculate the tolls that they continually increase. For the VN Bridge to have increased from $3 to $19 in 24 years, the justifiability of these increases is questionable.
In the near future, commuters can expect that Manhattan will join Staten Island in being an island with NO free way onto it. It is very likely that in the works, for announcement in the next few years, is the plan to install cashless tolling plazas on the Manhattan Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge, Williamsbuirg Bridge, and other free bridges. Why not, when they can toll whatever bridges they want, with zero interference from federal or state courts, who have all supported their ability to charge whatever they want?
Finally, there is one additional twist to this story. The operators of the VN Bridge are planning to split to the toll on the bridge. So, each direction will have to pay instead of just one direction. However, this may well be just so that people see the smaller toll, and think, “Oh, this isn’t so bad.” Then, they are less likely to complain when the toll starts to quickly increase, to the point where both directions are charging close to $19 per single direction trip. What is to stop them, when the courts have ruled in their favor again and again?
The justification for this split tolling is actually quite silly. While the ostensible purpose of two-way tolling (or toll splitting as it is also known) is to make it so that no one can cross that bridge for free, this is not realistic. Right now, some people use the VN Bridge to go into Brooklyn and then into Manhattan, using one of the presently free bridges mentioned previously. Then they use one of the bridges out of Manhattan (where the toll is not on the New Jersey bound side, such as the George Washington Bridge) so that they can avoid at least one toll.
Given that the cost to return to Staten Island, or to come to Staten Island through new jersey, costs $15, rising to $16, they are really saving very little, and upon implementation of split tolls, will save nothing. Therefore, instead of using this route, they would likely simply return to another Port Authority bridge or tunnel,. such as the Lincoln Tunnel, the Holland Tunnel, or the GWB, to take the same trip.
In all likelihood, the purpose of these people’s trips is not to save money, but to save on traffic time. Increasing their toll by adding the split toll to the VN Bridge would certainly have the effect of sending those commuters back to the more congested GWB and Lincoln Tunnel, and would likely not increase the revenue for the MTA at all, over the course of the first several years that this toll option is implemented. Once truck drivers, or car commuters, realize that they are paying more money by taking the VN Bridge, they will decide to take the Port Authority Bridges instead. This will leave only commuters with no other option to take the newly split toll Verrazzano Bridge.
Once again, Staten Islanders are being forced, with no obvious legal remedy available to them, and no one willing to bring a strong legal case against either of these two bodies, to pay for ever more improvements and constructions that they will not benefit from. They will watch their annual toll bill rise from $1,622 per year to $1,788 per year, just to return home. That is the minimum cost, only if they don’t have to travel to Manhattan or Brooklyn.
Non-island residents, for the same number of trips (i.e. every day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year) will be looking at an increase to $4,160, from a previous cost of $3,900. Those traveling to other parts of New York City are likely to pay more. One has to wonder, who is fighting for the residents of Staten Island, when, according to our assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, “These two agencies treat us like ATMs and that Congress is aiding them. It’s the ultimate #ShellGame.”