For whom the bridge tolls; New push to make Verrazano fee two-way

Traffic, including a five-axle tractor-trailer and other trucks, streams off the toll-free Manhattan Bridge and onto Canal St. Westbound Truckers use the free East River bridges and clog Lower Manhattan rather than the Verrazano Bridge, which carries a steep toll for traffic going to Staten Island. Villager file photo

Traffic, including a five-axle tractor-trailer and other trucks, streams off the toll-free Manhattan Bridge and onto Canal St. Westbound Truckers use the free East River bridges and go through Lower Manhattan to the free Holland Tunnel to New Jersey rather than take the Verrazano Bridge, which carries a steep toll for traffic going to Staten Island. Villager file photo

BY COLIN MIXSON | New booth-less toll technology leaves Republican congressmembers with no more excuses for maintaining the Verrazano Bridge’s unfair one-way toll structure, local advocates say. Lower Manhattan dwellers have long argued that the unbalanced fee sends cash-strapped truckers from the outer boroughs and beyond flooding into their neck of the woods.

“We’ve been waiting 30 years for this tech to evolve,” said Sean Sweeney, executive director of the Soho Alliance. “The time is now. Lets seize it!”

The current one-way bridge toll taxing Staten Island-bound traffic dates back to 1986. It was ostensibly a way to ease pollution caused by idling traffic tied up at the bridge’s massive toll plaza, which falls on the Staten Island side of the span.

However, this coming summer, the Verrazano is getting a new cashless toll system — where cameras will record license plates as drivers zoom by — making concerns about booth-induced smog a thing of the past, Downtown Manhattanites argue.

As it is, the Verrazano’s exorbitant $16 toll for Staten Island- and New Jersey-bound drivers sends hordes of outer-borough and Long Island motorists pouring over the toll-free East River bridges into Lower Manhattan, before turning crosstown thoroughfares into speedways as they head to the Holland Tunnel, which only taxes drivers heading into the city.

Truckers — who are charged by the axle at toll crossings — were especially keen to avoid the Verrazano’s double toll. But Downtown residents got a break after trucks with more than three axles were forbidden from the Holland Tunnel following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

Canal St., in particular, has earned a reputation for truck-clogged gridlock in the years since the Verrazano toll went one-way, according to Councilmember Margaret Chin.

“This is why crossing Canal St. is so dangerous,” Chin said. “We have to find a way to improve congestion and traffic safety.”

And as drivers detour around the Verrazano span’s massive toll, the state looses out on millions of dollars in revenue, according to one Downtown activist.

“It’s incredible the amount of toll revenue that’s lost,” said Carl Rosenstein, a Downtowner who in the 1990s created a group called Trees Not Trucks to combat commercial trucking traffic caused by the one-way toll. “Hundreds of millions of dollars to the M.T.A. system are gone — it’s really kind of criminal.”

But the crusaders face a big roadblock — the Verrazano is the only local toll bridge that falls under federal jurisdiction, and a Republican-dominated Congress has been reluctant to back any change that would agitate conservative Staten Island voters.

Republican Representative Dan Donovan, who represents Staten Island and part of Brooklyn, vowed to oppose any measure to restore the two-way toll until he has seen data proving the change would decrease traffic and increase revenue, according to spokesperson Patrick Ryan.

According to Ryan, until solid evidence emerges proving the efficacy of a two-way toll, the change will be a tough sell to Staten Island voters, Donovan’s primary constituency.

“I think that with any constituency, when you propose changing something that’s been in effect 30 years, all these theories come up that it’s going to be worse because of ‘X, Y, Z,’ ” Ryan said. “But if you can say, ‘We’re going to get ‘X’ amount of revenue we can use for this project, that makes it easier to discuss.”

Congressman Jerry Nadler, who represents Manhattan’s West Side and Brooklyn, meanwhile, has been a longtime supporter of the two-way toll. But he came under fire from constituents after he failed to see the change through when the House and Senate were briefly controlled by Democrats during the early years of Obama’s first term, according to Rosenstein.

“The Dems had a veto-proof Congress and Nadler failed to do what he had promised his constituents,” Rosenstein charged.

But ramming the change through Congress is more difficult than it seems, because it needs to be tacked onto more substantial transportation legislation, which didn’t materialize during that two-year window, according to Robert Gottheim, Nadler’s district director.

But with the new toll technology and President Trump championing new highway infrastructure programs, Nadler sees both the will and a way to realize a two-way toll on the Verrazano on the horizon, Gottheim said.

“Looking forward, there’s a strong chance this can be done,” he said.

Regardless of what the future holds in store, one question will likely remain forever unanswered: How has Staten Island managed to screw over Lower Manhattan for this long?

“Why does this little backwater of New York City have such power that it can control the traffic flow in the center of the universe?” Sweeney asked. “Why are Trump supporters causing misery in Lower Manhattan. How is this allowed?”

Brooklyn’s Community Board 6 (Gowanus and Park Slope) is championing the two-way toll and wrote Governor Cuomo asking for a study. Cuomo did not return a call for comment.

C.B. 6 members say that New Jersey commuters take the free Verrazano to get to Manhattan instead of the Holland Tunnel — even though it’s a longer trip — to avoid the fee, which adds traffic to the Brooklyn neighborhoods.

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