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Tolls and trepidations trip up officials

The Brooklyn Paper
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While state lawmakers from Brooklyn are unanimously upset about the severe service cuts and fare increase announced by the MTA last week in its 2009 budget, they remain, to various degrees, deeply uncomfortable with the prospect of implementing tolls on East River bridges to lessen the severity of the budget.

The implementation of tolls on the historically-free Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Harlem River Bridges was the most controversial part of an early December report by a state commission led by former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch. The commission was charged with coming up with sources of revenue to close the MTA’s current $1.2 budget gap, and to establish a long-term plan to pay for the agency’s future capital and operating needs.

The commission estimated the tolls — which would be collected electronically — would generate $600 million in net revenue annually. The commission also proposed a region-wide payroll tax that would tax businesses 33 cents for every $100 in payroll, and estimated it would generate $1.5 billion a year.

The commission said its recommendations — which include other measures — would provide a continual source of revenue would stave off some of the cuts in fare increases (with a base fare increase from $2 to $2.50) called for in the MTA’s 2009 budget. The recommendations would also provide new revenue streams that would help finance borrowing for the MTA capital plan from 2010 to 2014, which is currently largely unfunded.

But many Brooklyn lawmakers, while supporting the payroll tax, balked at the suggestion of tolling the bridges. Many claimed the tolls amounted to a disproportionate burden on outer borough residents.

“I don’t support them. I don’t understand why Brooklyn residents have to subsidize the MTA, which is a region-wide system. To charge people to go into Manhattan with no alternative is just unfair,” said Assemblymember Alan Maisel, who represents areas in Southeast Brooklyn like Canarsie and Flatlands.

Another South Brooklyn Assemblymember, Peter Abbate, Jr., who represents Bensonhurst, Bath Beach, and Dyker Heights, was just as strong in his disapproval of the plan.

“I think it’s a horrible idea. It has been brought up for 30 years, and really all it is is a burden on the constituencies of the outer boroughs. I wouldn’t consider the tolls,” Abbate said.

Senator Carl Kruger, another South Brooklyn lawmaker whose district includes Flatlands, Mill Basin, and Sheepshead Bay, was also “absolutely and unequivocally opposed to tolls on the East River Crossing and on any crossing.”

Senator Diane Savino, who represents South Brooklyn areas in addition to northern Staten Island, took a softer tone on the issue.

“I’m not sold on [the need for East River tolls] yet, but I’m not ready to dismiss it outright,” she said.

Some North Brooklyn politicians, whose constituents tend to drive in fewer numbers and be more dependent on public transportation, were still skeptical of the idea of tolls, but were more receptive than their South Brooklyn counterparts.

Because of the toll-free Brooklyn bridges, North Brooklyn neighborhoods see their streets become more congested and polluted because of “cut-through-traffic” coming to the bridges.

Assemblymember Joseph Lentol, who represents Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Fort Greene, said he “would not like to see [tolls] done at all. But you never say never. It’s something of last resort that I would consider, but I do think we have to figure out a way to bail out the system, hopefully without tolls on the bridges.”

Assemblymember Hakim Jeffries, whose district includes Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, took a similar stance to Lentol’s.

“I’m disinclined, but still open to consideration given the dramatic nature of the financial crisis,” he said.

Still, he echoed the sentiments of many Brooklyn lawmakers who said that East River bridge tolls would mean “it would fall unfairly on outer borough communities to shoulder the burden of a mass transit system that benefits millions of people in the metropolitan area.”

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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