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Queens Chronicle

Avella seeking to ban East River tolls

Senator fears ‘a devastating effect’; ‘Gridlock Sam’ says Queens benefits

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Posted: Thursday, December 19, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 11:34 am, Thu Dec 26, 2013.

Tolls existed at New York City’s East River crossings until 1911, and reinstating them in some form has long been a topic of conversation.

Now state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) wants to end the discussion — permanently.

Avella, speaking Friday at a press conference at Queensboro Plaza, said he intends to introduce a bill that would ban imposition of any tolls after the Senate reconvenes in January.

The bridges, all operated by the city’s Department of Transportation, include the Queensboro, Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges over the East River and the Third Avenue and Willis Avenue spans over the Harlem River.

Sam Schwartz, former chief engineer for the DOT and a former deputy commissioner, is the architect of the most recent toll proposal.

He says putting tolls at bridge entrances at Midtown and Lower Manhattan could lower costs on other bridges such as the Throgs Neck, Whitestone and Triborough, while reducing traffic and raising money desperately needed for bridge maintenance.

But Avella, along with Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows) and representatives of the Queens Civic Congress and the Queens Chamber of Commerce, said tolls would place an unfair burden on residents of all boroughs but Staten Island, forcing increased costs on them in an increasingly expensive city.

“Adding tolls to any of these bridges would have a devastating effect on working- and middle-class families and small businesses,” Avella said. “Everyone agrees that we need to address traffic congestion problems throughout the city, but the first step has to be improving mass transit.”

Weprin said any tolls to and from Manhattan would adversely affect residents and business owners who have no choice but to travel between boroughs by car or truck. He and Avella said city officials need to look elsewhere to increase revenue.

A spokeswoman for Weprin said any decision about sponsoring a companion bill in the Assembly would be taken up after the start of the January session.

Schwartz, in a telephone interview last Friday, said the tolls should go where the traffic is, and that residents of Queens could quite possibly benefit the most from such a plan, given that it would slash tolls on other bridges, such as the Whitestone and Throgs Neck, which are operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

“Tolls on the Throgs Neck, Whitestone, Triborough and Gil Hodges bridges — those hurt business,” he said. “Every time the MTA needs money, it raises tolls in places that have nothing to do with Manhattan’s central business district.”

He said the current toll on the Throgs Neck, for example — $7.50 one way for cash or $5.33 for E-ZPass — is a burden on Queens residents that does not exist in Manhattan’s central business district.

“The people who receive the most benefits should pay the most,” he said.

Schwartz, who ordered the Williamsburg Bridge closed for three months in 1988 when engineers found potentially catastrophic deterioration in many spots, also reiterated that money is needed to maintain the bridges.

The Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883, is the oldest of the spans at 130. The Williamsburg (1903), Ed Koch Queensboro and Manhattan (both 1909) all are over 100. The newest is the Throgs Neck (1961).

“And the MTA’s current capital budget runs out at the end of 2014,” he said.

QCC President Richard Hellenbrecht, in a letter to the Queens members of the City Council and state Legislature, urges them to stop any new tolls.

“Savings on the Throgs Neck and Whitestone would be nice, but their numbers don’t add up,” he said Monday night at a meeting of Community Board 13, on which he serves as a member.

Hellenbrecht wrote that tolls would provide both a physical and psychological barrier between the outer boroughs and Manhattan.

“There are numerous businesses that make daily or more frequent trips between the boroughs, and tolls would place an unnecessary burden on them,” Hellenbrecht wrote.

He added that same expense would hamper outer-borough residents who like to travel into Manhattan for recreational or entertainment purposes.

Hellenbrecht also said it would work in reverse, serving as a deterrent those living in Manhattan, New Jersey and elsewhere to whom Queens and Brooklyn have been increasingly marketing themselves as tourist destinations.

Robert Sinclair, spokesman for AAA New York, said his organization is not endorsing any toll proposal, but is willing to look at a comprehensive approach to clearing up traffic problems.

“We would have to look at the details of the [Avella] bill,” he said.

Schwartz said a final proposal will be made next year, though Sinclair said his general plan is broad in scope, such as reconstructing the Belt Parkway in order to allow trucks more direct access to John F. Kennedy International Airport.

“We’re not endorsing it,” Sinclair said. “We’re saying it deserves a look, a solid look, because they have to do something.”

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