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Queens Chronicle

East River bridges toll ‘ghost’ returns

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Posted: Thursday, November 13, 2008 12:00 am

Halloween may have passed, but some elected officials are claiming a ghost is back in town.

The so-called specter returned Monday morning, when a state commission on Metropolitan Transportation Authority finances announced that it is contemplating imposing tolls on the four East River Bridges to raise revenue for the agency.

“The ghost of tolling the East River bridges has popped up again. This idea should stay dead,” Congressman Anthony Weiner said. “It’s a regressive tax on middle class and working New Yorkers.”

Weiner’s criticism came after MTA President and CEO Elliot Sander announced that the agency faces a $1.2 billion budget deficit in 2009 that will likely require fare and toll increases or service reductions.

Unless the city or state provide funding, or the MTA finds new sources of revenue, the dire fiscal situation facing the agency could significantly influence riders across subway, bus and commuter-rail networks, according to Sander.

“Whatever that mix that we come up with, in terms of fare and toll increases and service reductions, there’s no question that they would have an impact, significantly, on our customers and on the functioning of that region,” the CEO said.

The “mix” suggested by the Ravitch Commission — named for and headed by former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch — is placing tolls on the city-owned Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queensboro and Williamsburg bridges. It did not recommend any particular figure for the toll.

Gov. David Paterson appointed the commission in April — after Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal failed — and charged it with recommending strategies to fund MTA capital projects and operating needs for the next 10 years.

Regarding the toll proposal, Sander said during a news conference Monday that from a “broader transportation-policy standpoint I’m comfortable with that, but that should not be interpreted as my support for it … We are looking at that suggestion, along with many [others].”

Critics, including City Councilman and Transportation Committee Chairman John Liu (D-Flushing), immediately rejected the idea, calling it an unfair tax on residents of the outer boroughs.

Liu said there is no doubt the MTA is in need of a bailout, but that it is not the responsibility of working New Yorkers to provide one — especially through the “most divisive of approaches, pitting boroughs against borough.

“Proposing East River bridge tolls will go over like a lead balloon.” The idea is bandied about every time there is a financial crisis, Liu said, and each time it sinks. He maintains, “a fair solution can only be found in a broad-based revenue source.

City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside), a long-standing toll opponent, attempted to put an end to the bandying in June 2006, when he introduced a bill to prohibit tolls on the four East River bridges. To date, Avella said, the bill has “languished” in the council’s Transportation Committee.

“It should be the responsibility of the leaders of the city to find ways of increasing revenues to improve mass transit without placing the fiscal burden upon those who can least afford it,” Avella said.

Some view the idea as “congestion pricing reincarnated,” as Weiner put it, which means it will likely garner little support from residents of the outer boroughs who have long been served by the free crossings.

“Proposing these tolls will only evoke nearly a century’s worth of emotional baggage that will only distract from reaching real solutions,” according to Liu.

Sander said the MTA’s deficit resulted from the collapse of revenues from real estate and corporate taxes. A PowerPoint presentation posted on the MTA’s Web site, www.mta.info, lists details of the MTA’s financial strait; they show the magnitude of the problem and indicate that further trouble is up ahead.

One chart in the presentation summarizes “What got better? What got worse?” Real estate transaction taxes, for example, got worse: this year, the taxes, which represent an important share of MTA revenue, provided only $995 million.

In 2006, the MTA collected more than $1.4 billion in such taxes, while last year it took in close to $1.6 billion. And it looks as though the agency will take in less and less. It projected that it will collect $895 million next year and $877 million in 2010.

But there is another major cause for the MTA’s ominous fiscal situation: according to published reports, Sander said the largest contributor to the current operating deficit was the 2000-2004 capital program.

The copious borrowing for capital projects that occurred then, under the leadership of former Gov. George Pataki and former MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow, is now costing the agency hundreds of millions of dollars in interest payments each year. It was reported that the figure is projected to rise to $2 billion by 2012.

Following the MTA’s announcement and the commission’s suggestion, Paterson released a prepared statement on Monday in which he said, “Addressing the fiscal challenges facing the MTA and the state over the next several years will require shared sacrifice, difficult choices and cooperation from all funding partners.”

He urged all to “be open and transparent in facing these challenges and in discussing options.”

The MTA is required to pass a balanced budget in December for the 2009 fiscal year, which begins on Jan. 1. The Ravitch commission will release its recommendations on Dec. 5 and Paterson will release the state’s executive budget proposal on Dec. 16. Only after that will final decisions regarding fare and toll increases, and service cuts be made.

Both the City Council and state Legislature would have to sign off on the proposal to add tolls to the East River.

Welcome to the discussion.