Nadler: Two-way Verrazano toll is coming down pike

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  Congressmember Jerrold Nadler says the hated one-way Verrazano-Narrows Bridge toll — the bane of traffic-inundated Downtown residents — could be eliminated in as soon as two years due to high-speed E-ZPass and similar measures.

Drivers, especially truckers, use the Verrazano going from Staten Island into Brooklyn as part of a toll-free loop through New York. On the return trip, they avoid the Staten Island-bound Verrazano and its steep fee of around $40 (trucks are tolled per axle) and instead use the free East River bridges and Holland Tunnel.

The result is thousands of toll-avoiding trucks flooding through Lower Manhattan’s major arteries — Delancey, Broome and Canal Sts. — creating, traffic, pollution, noise and danger on the streets, not to mention wear and tear on those same streets. Neighborhoods like Soho, the Lower East Side and Chinatown, especially, are hard-hit by the congestion.

From the Verrazano’s construction in 1964 through the mid-1980s, the toll was collected in both directions. Then, to help his constituents on heavily Republican Staten Island, former Senator Al D’Amato — who was then the state’s de facto G.O.P. boss — succeeded in making the bridge toll one-way. Staten Islanders wanted the change in order to avoid backups at toll plazas on their side of the span.

Downtown residents, for years, have looked to two leading local Democrats, Nadler and Senator Chuck Schumer — who unseated D’Amato in 1998 — to fix the problematic toll. So far, though, there’s been no change.

But, at long last, there could be a light at the end of the tunnel — or rather, the bridge.

Nadler attended Community Board 2’s meeting last month, giving an update on his doings in Congress. After he finished his report, the floor was opened to questions. Shirley Secunda, chairperson of the board’s Traffic and Transportation Committee, asked Nadler for the latest on the troublesome Verrazano toll, if legislation would be introduced to rectify it.

“That’s going to happen,” Nadler assured of readjusting the toll. “It’s going to happen for a different reason in a couple of years.

“I don’t like to talk about it,” Nadler noted, “because every time I talk about it, it makes headlines in the Staten Island Advance. They don’t want it out there.”

Nadler said he’s trying to get a commitment from the M.T.A. that the Verrazano will be one of the first places where high-speed E-Z Pass will be installed. This would basically involve electronic tolling of cars driving by at full speed, without drivers having to stop, or even pause at a toll plaza. The toll booths on the Verrazano’s Manhattan side would be removed.

The congressmember said Staten Islanders are still concerned about backups at toll plazas, but, as he put it, “No toll plaza — no backup.”

In 2010, most of the bridge’s unused Brooklyn-bound toll booths were removed.

Another option or part of the plan, he said, could be to photograph drivers’ license plates and have the M.T.A. bill them later.

After Nadler finished answering questions, he started to leave, but was cornered by Lora Tenenbaum in the hallway outside. The Soho activist laid into the politician over the long-festering bridge issue, telling him, that because of it, “I stopped voting for you.”

“It’s not only Jerry,” she said. “It’s also our U.S. senator, who made it a campaign promise — and he hasn’t done it. I just feel there’s been a lack of political will.”

Tenenbaum accused the two pols of being afraid to offend Staten Island residents, but Nadler protested that wasn’t true.

“I don’t care about Staten Island. Chuck may,” he declared. “It’s not in my district.”

Nadler said had Congress passed the federal transportation bill in 2009 and 2010, the Verrazano toll imbalance would have been adjusted.

“We were already moving to put that into the bill — then we got a Republican Congress,” he noted.

He added that Staten Islanders, who currently get a discount on the toll, would keep it if high-speed E-ZPass is implemented.

A two-way, high-speed, electronic toll — with an equal-priced toll in each direction — would be painless and Staten Islanders wouldn’t end up paying higher fees over all, Nadler assured. High-speed tolling has been implemented on the Henry Hudson Bridge, he noted.

In a follow-up interview, Robert Gottheim, Nadler’s district director, fleshed out what he called the obstacles keeping the one-way toll from being addressed. He gave a chronology of events:

In 1998, the transportation bill was passed and the House at that time was under G.O.P. control.

“Vito Fossella was in Congress — it was not going to happen,” Gottheim said, referring to the former Republican rep from Staten Island and any possible action on the one-way toll.

In 2005, the Democrats lost control of Congress.

The last long-term federal transportation bill expired in 2009. The Democrats had regained control of Congress by then, but, according to Gottheim, President Obama decided to put the transportation bill on the back burner.

“It wasn’t the priority of the president,” Gottheim said. “He said, ‘Let’s put it off for 18 months.’ ”

In 2010, the Republicans regained the majority in the House.

Three years after the transportation bill’s expiration, it remains in limbo, with funding extended through so-called “continuing renewals.”

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