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Queens Chronicle

New taxes, tolls to meet protest, boycott

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Posted: Thursday, December 4, 2008 12:00 am

In its final proposed 2009 budget, released on Nov. 20, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority told New Yorkers to take a hike — literally.

Commuters are facing a $3 base bus and subway fare, up from the current $2. The fee for Access-A-Ride, an MTA van service provided for the elderly and physically disabled, could more than double and reach $4. And express bus riders, who already shell out $5 per ride, could see an increase in the fare that would reach $7.50.

MTA officials said the fare hikes, along with major service reductions, will plug the $1.2 billion gap in the agency’s 2009 budget, which must be adopted by Jan. 1. But in order to avoid carrying out the plan, which MTA CEO Elliot Sander called “draconian,” the agency said it would need a state bailout by March.

If the state fails to find a new source of revenue by then, the MTA will proceed with its proposed budget — on which the MTA Board will vote later this month. That means commuters will pay more, but receive poorer service.

Among cutbacks proposed in the budget are the closure of token books, elimination of 2,800 jobs and termination of bus routes with low ridership. Additionally, the W and J subway trains would no longer run, and some weekday and weekend services would be canceled. Cuts would take place as soon as the spring.

Drivers could see potential increases as well. A state commission appointed by Gov. David Paterson to create a rescue package for the MTA is expected to release a report Dec. 5 with recommendations that include instituting new tolls.

According to published reports, the commission, led by former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch, will suggest a new tax on corporate payrolls, tolls on the East River and Harlem River bridges and increases in existing fares and tolls.

The recommendations will be presented to Paterson and are subject to passage by the state Legislature. It has been reported that the MTA is hoping the commission will allow the state to find more revenue: the agency’s budget will contain less severe cuts in service and smaller fare increases if the Legislature approves the recommendations.

It was reported that the commission will suggest a tax on payrolls of less than half of 1 percent for businesses in the 12-county area served by the MTA. The tax would raise $1 billion or more annually.

Another $600 million would be generated annually by new tolls on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensborough (59th Street) bridges, which are currently owned by the city Department of Transportation.

It is unclear how the MTA would take control of the four East River bridges and the nine city-owned Harlem River bridges.

According to the commission’s expected recommendation, toll plazas would not be installed: tolls would be collected through E-ZPass readers. Digital cameras that photograph each vehicle’s license plate would identify drivers without E-ZPass so they could be billed.

Although he has not expressed his stance on the subject of tolling the bridges, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) has shown support for the commission’s new tax suggestion. “I am not afraid of a reasonable, responsible tax being part of the solution,” Silver was quoted as saying in published reports.

The commission is expected to call for minimal service reductions, but will likely suggest increases in subway, bus and commuter rail fares and on existing bridge and tunnel tolls. The increases would be significantly smaller than those outlined in the MTA’s proposed budget, which raises the fares and tolls by 23 percent, according to published reports.

The MTA’s proposed 2009 budget and the commission’s recommendation of new tolls riled up many city commuters and drivers, leading some to suggest a boycott and others to promise protests and acts of civil disobedience.

In South Jamaica, 36-year-old Louis Kenny is organizing a boycott for June 9, around which time the higher fares would take effect, if the MTA’s budget is passed.

Likening the fare and toll hikes to “white-collar extortion,” Kenny has started publicizing his cause, putting up flyers at D and E train stations and on the trains themselves and calling on City Council members and community leaders to participate.

With their help, Kenny said, “We can stand up and say, ‘Listen, we run New York City, not the MTA. We’re the ones that put money in your pockets, so you know what, you need to listen to us.’”

Meanwhile, in Broad Channel and on the Rockaway Peninsula, motorists are threatening bedlam. Last week the MTA proposed rescinding rebates for drivers in the two communities: using resident E-ZPasses, they pay $1.03 to traverse the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge. Since 1998, the fee has been returned to them in a rebate.

If the MTA ends the refund program, it could save the agency about $3.6 million annually. But Broad Channel and Rockaway residents are not having it: they are preparing to fight the proposal before the MTA Board votes on the budget.

Even an MTA official is encouraging protest. Hilary Ring, MTA director of government affairs, called the cutback proposal “terrible” at a public forum in a Williamsburg, Brooklyn senior center last week, according to the Daily News. He encouraged people to express their anger at public hearings scheduled in January.

Ring told the crowd that the MTA does not want to adopt the budget it presented to its board, but has no choice if the city and state refuse to “increase their contributions” to the agency.

City Comptroller William Thompson Jr. approached the subject differently, proposing a plan last week that would help close the MTA’s budget gap by hiking taxes for motorists.

The plan would increase weight-based taxes on all metro-area drivers who own large vehicles. Thompson’s sliding-scale tax would be an addition to the existing weight-based state registration fee car owners pay every two years.

Thompson’s tax could cost car owners $200 extra. Those who own heavyweights, like sports utility vehicles, could pay an additional $400 or more. The comptroller claims the tax, which would apply to all 12 countries served by the MTA, would generate up to $1.8 billion annually.

A weight-based tax would promote energy independence, provide incentive to purchase lighter and more fuel-efficient vehicles and ease city-parking shortages, Thompson said.

His approach could cause further outrage among drivers who recall Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed congestion pricing plan. Thompson said he would submit his proposal to the state commission.

According to NYC Transit data, more than 1.3 million bus and subway riders would face delays if service cuts go into effect in the spring.

Welcome to the discussion.