Mayor balks at toll study, but Silver interested

By Josh Rogers

Mayor Mike Bloomberg this week threw some cold East River water on a new report detailing the benefits of keeping the city’s bridges free to New Yorkers while instituting tolls to suburbanites. Minutes later, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver voiced his strongest support to date for East River bridge tolls — as long as city residents could get large discounts.

Bloomberg began shifting into reverse on his toll support last year, a few months after he first suggested it as a way to help close the city’s budget deficit. The idea has strong opposition from car owners on the Lower East Side, Chinatown and in Brooklyn and Queens, but is seen favorably by many people who live in the western sections of Lower Manhattan, where there is better subway service and where people feel overwhelmed by the traffic generated from free bridges and free trips to New Jersey through the Holland Tunnel.

At a press conference Tuesday, Bloomberg said he did not think the Independent Budget Office’s estimate that the city could collect $300 million a year by tolling non-city residents crossing the East and Harlem River bridges was important, since he doubted whether the plan could ever be approved.

“The political reality of whether that can be passed is questionable,” Bloomberg said at Sara D. Roosevelt Park on the Lower East Side.

The mayor and Silver were Downtown to thank Paul Tagliabue, commissioner of the National Football League, for $5 million in N.F.L. donations for Lower Manhattan projects, including $25,000 for a cleanup program in the park.

Bloomberg said getting tolls approved would take too long.

“To do tolling, you would need to do a lengthy environmental impact study and state legislation,” Bloomberg said. “It would be a long time.”

Silver, whose district includes the Lower East Side and Chinatown, had been a toll opponent, but yesterday he said he would support them if city residents received “substantial discounts.”

“I would oppose a substantial toll for city residents going from one part of the city to another,” Silver added.

He disagreed with the mayor on two points — that a citywide discount was unrealistic and that the city needed state legislation for tolls.

Silver said Staten Island residents receive large discounts on the Verrazano Bridge and similarly, Rockaway residents get discounts on the bridges linking them to the rest of the city.

“One never knows what’s realistic,” Silver said. “People thought the Verrazano Bridge was something that would never happen.”

Silver, who controls one half of the State Legislature, said, “I believe the city can do it on their own.”

There are at least two scenarios by which the city could avoid state legislation. One is to sell the bridges to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is controlled by the governor, and let the M.T.A. implement tolls. This has been criticized by some because the city would have to forego control of the bridges.

The second would be for the city to set up a local development corporation for the bridges, said Preston Niblack, deputy director of the I.B.O. Silver did not specify how he thought the city could avoid the state with tolls.

Niblack said it was his understanding that the L.D.C. approach had potential legal problems and would likely have to survive a lawsuit.

I.B.O. officials were not dissuaded by the mayor’s cool reaction to the report, released this week.

“We have no disagreement [with Bloomberg],” said Doug Turetsky, spokesperson for the I.B.O. “It would take time to get this up and running.”

The report did not recommend any plan and Turetsky said the goal was to examine what the options are.

The budget office is an independent city agency that is funded from a fixed formula not controlled by the mayor or City Council.

The report concluded that the city could make $693 million from tolling the city bridges. An estimated $502 million would come from the untolled East River bridges, the Brooklyn Manhattan and Williamsburg, and $191 million from the Harlem River overpasses, which include the Willis and Third Ave. bridges. With an exemption for city residents, the city would still net $308 million — $210 million from the East River and $98 million from Harlem. The report did not estimate the revenue from Silver’s discount idea.

The report estimated that 43 percent of the drivers over the East River are from out of the city and that 51 percent of the Harlem crossers are out-of-towners.

The I.B.O. used a 1991 city Dept. of Transportation study and a 1997-1998 household survey of leisure driving trips.

The I.B.O. study did not consider what is called the “bounce-back” factor: Once tolls are instituted, many drivers would likely turn to public transportation, but others would be encouraged to take to the bridges because they would have less traffic, said Charles Komanoff, a Tribeca resident and traffic analyst.

Niblack agreed the “bounce-back” factor was real, and acknowledged his revenue estimates may be too conservative because he did not try and calculate how many new drivers would be attracted to the faster, tolled bridges.

Komanoff said he was disappointed that after the mayor first floated the idea of tolls in February 2002, he did not follow through in the face of opposition like he did with antismoking legislation. For example, Komanoff said most people are still under the misperception that tolls would require adding tollbooths and are unaware that new technologies use overhead sensors and do not take up road space.

Had the mayor pressed on with his proposal last year, he would not be harping on the lengthy review process, Komanoff said, noting, “The mayor only has himself to blame for not putting the studies in motion.”