Tony Avella and David Weprin Launch Preemptive Attack on NYC Toll Reform

Remember these guys? This morning, State Senator Tony Avella and Assembly Member David Weprin stood at traffic-choked Queensboro Plaza to say they don’t care if the Move NY toll reform plan reduces tolls on bridges near their eastern Queens districts — they refuse to support any proposal that adds tolls to East River crossings. In a bid to preempt any forthcoming effort to fix the region’s dysfunctional road pricing system, they’re introducing legislation in Albany to prohibit charging drivers on city-owned bridges. The gesture is pure theatrics, since NYC already can’t put a price on those bridges without approval from the state.

State Senator Tony Avella and Assembly Member David Weprin oppose a plan that would bring lower tolls to the Throgs Neck and Whitestone Bridges in eastern Queens. Photo: Stephen Miller
State Senator Tony Avella and Assembly Member David Weprin are back promising to keep NYC streets choked with traffic. Photo: Stephen Miller

It’s also a return to form for two of the most outspoken opponents of the 2008 congestion pricing proposal. At that time, Avella and Weprin were in the minority of City Council members who voted against congestion pricing. Now they’re in Albany, and they still don’t want to do anything to fix a tolling system that’s free in the most congested parts of the city and more expensive in outlying areas with worse transit options.

“I’m puzzled as to why they would oppose a plan that would lower by nearly half the tolls on five out of six Queens bridges,” said Alex Matthiessen of Move NY. The Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges, which would see lower tolls under the Move NY plan, are within Avella’s district.

The Move NY plan, put together by “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, works like this: All drivers that enter the Manhattan’s congested core by crossing either the East River or 60th Street would pay a toll, while drivers on bridges linking the other boroughs, where there are fewer transit options, would see their tolls go down. The net result: More funds dedicated to transportation in the region, with the majority of it going to improved transit service.

The argument from Avella and Weprin, who were joined by the Queens Chamber of Commerce and Keep NYC Congestion Tax Free (yes, it still exists), is basically that the Move NY plan is too good to be true. “It sounds nice,” Avella said. “But the proposal will never work in reality.” He claimed that funds generated by the plan could be shifted to non-transportation uses, and that the state could simply revert tolls on the outer-borough crossings to their previous levels without consequence.

Matthiessen called this “a cynical and paranoid viewpoint,” adding that “it would be political suicide for the governor, which controls the MTA, to allow the MTA to simply restore the old high tolls.”

Opponents of the Move NY plan also said that it would have a disproportionate impact on many small businesses that make multiple trips each day between the outer boroughs and Manhattan. “We want this plan to have as minimal an impact on businesses as possible,” Matthiessen said. “We don’t want to penalize those people,” he said, adding that the plan would use E-ZPass information and license plate scanners to only charge commercial drivers once per day, instead of each time they make a crossing.

Sounding an old and discredited theme, Weprin called bridge tolls a regressive tax. In reality, car commuters to Manhattan — including those in Weprin’s and Avella’s own districts — are wealthier than most city residents.

I asked Avella why he was campaigning against the Move NY plan, given that Governor Cuomo said very recently that it won’t be up for consideration in Albany. He said he wanted to halt any discussion of new bridge tolls sooner rather than later. “This is not the way to go,” he said.

Not all the old congestion pricing opponents are lining up against Move NY. “This is vastly different than the Bloomberg congestion pricing plan,” said AAA New York’s John Corlett. “We’re not going to have a knee-jerk reaction against it.”

Avella, for his part, just thinks NYC motorists should get a free ride, period. “I personally believe, and I’m just speaking for myself, there shouldn’t be tolls on any bridges within the city of New York,” Avella said. “It’s discriminatory to charge one person to go from one borough to the other.”

I asked Avella why, then, his bill doesn’t eliminate the subway fare. “That fare is already there,” Avella said. “If you eliminated the subway fare, you would actually increase ridership on mass transit, but the problem is, how do you fund it?”

If only there were some kind of realistic proposal on the table that would generate revenue for transit.

Both legislators fell back on the same proposal NYC legislators always invoke when they want to reassure their constituents that someone else will pay for infrastructure — the commuter tax. Albany killed the commuter tax more than a decade ago, and suburban legislators are unlikely to warm to the idea of its return anytime soon.

Given the dim prospects of the commuter tax, I asked Avella if he had any other transit funding ideas. “Online gambling,” he said.