Fare And Toll Hikes Are Coming

"Gridlock" Sam Schwartz's Congestion Pricing proposal.

THE COMMUTE: If the MTA has its way, fare and toll hikes in odd numbered years will be as certain as death and taxes. The next ones are scheduled for January 2013, with approval by the MTA Board in December after a series of citywide hearings to be held in the fall. Hearings should be for the purpose of obtaining public opinion, but in the MTA’s case, first the decision is made, then the hearings are held as a formality. Great way to improve the MTA’s credibility and image. That is why most people no longer attend these hearings, especially when they have to wait three or more hours to speak, after all the elected officials — the same elected officials guilty of cutting or not increasing MTA funding.

The MTA has already made it known that they intend to hike the basic fare to $2.50 and major bridge and tunnel tolls to $7 each way. Chairman Joseph Lhota announced that similar increases will occur again in 2015 and 2017, resulting in no service improvements, at least through 2016. What has not been announced is what the MTA intends to do about weekly and monthly unlimited ride passes. When they were raised last and the base fare remained at $2.25, the MTA tried to cap unlimited ride passes, in effect making them limited. That idea was rejected but it does not mean it is dead. Eliminating unlimited passes entirely, or restricting them to one individual so they cannot be shared among family members not traveling together, are other possibilities that could be considered.

This is why it is crucial to attend this hearing when it is held, so the MTA can hear which type of changes would impact you the most and how it will affect your usage of mass transit. While a fare hike is more or less a given, it is still important for you to be heard.


The bicycle and mass transit advocacy group, Transportation Alternatives, believes enough is enough and started a petition on Change.org.

They state:

We’ve paid enough!
Since 2007, New Yorkers have endured three transit fare hikes and the worst service cuts in a generation. We’re literally paying more for less! Now, the State Government plans to raise the cost of a MetroCard again. Yet, the State stole $260 million in transit funds, and the City hasn’t increased its funding since 1992!
We’ve paid enough. It’s time the State and City step up and invest in public transit.
There are 7.5 million daily transit riders in New York and, together, we can stop this fare hike! Tell Governor Cuomo: no more fare hikes!

Other Ways Of Funding Transit

While regular small fare hikes are better than a huge hike all at once, I don’t agree with the MTA announcing the next three fare hikes and their amounts simultaneously when no one knows what the economy will be like in the next five years. If there is an economic turnaround it is possible that fare and toll hikes will not be necessary in 2015 and 2017 or not in the amounts currently proposed. Also, I would not be surprised if, like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey [PDF], the MTA holds a single set of hearings for more than one proposed increase. Guaranteeing the MTA more than one increase now reduces the likelihood of them trying to further streamline operations and reduce inefficiencies in the future. Separate hearings need to be held for each fare and toll increase. If necessary, this should be guaranteed by law. Deciding fare and toll hikes four years before they take effect also gives the state and city less of an incentive to properly fund mass transit’s operating costs if they know the user will foot a greater share of the bill and provides no say at all for new residents.

Let’s Talk About Tolls

One reason the MTA was created was to give it power to increase the tolls collected by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and apply most of those tolls to mass transit, since the original purpose of tolls to finance the construction of the bridges no longer applied in most cases. A better mass transit system was seen as a benefit to all, including those who drive. With only a small portion of revenue set aside to maintain the bridges and tunnels, politicians promised that giving the MTA this power will provide it with a steady revenue stream, forever ending their financial problems.

We all know that never happened. The money goes toward the MTA Capital Program, but the MTA never provided the subways with the amount of money originally envisioned, giving too great a portion to the commuter rails (if you agree that ridership levels should determine the modal split for the additional revenue). The MTA first raised tolls from 25 cents on most of its bridges and tunnels to 50 cents. Assuming the proposed increases are approved, who amongst those living at that time envisioned tolls would rise to $7 in 45 years, after having never been increased once during the previous 45 years?

Tolling The Free Bridges

The idea of tolling the free East River and Harlem River bridges has been around since the 1970s. Although some of those bridges originally had tolls to finance their construction, they were abolished in the early part of the 20th century. The rationale was that bridges were just extensions of streets and should be free. During the age of Robert Moses, bridges and tunnels were built to connect highways, or proposed highways, so there was no reason for those tolls to be free.

When Robert Moses’ highway system was never completed — with the Mid-Manhattan Expressway connecting the Lincoln Tunnel to the Queens Midtown Tunnel, and a direct connection built from the free Brooklyn Bridge to the FDR in the 1970s — the distinction between what should be free and what should be tolled became muddled.

Since many motorists would go out of their way to utilize a free bridge, the idea was born to toll all the bridges entering Manhattan, to minimize congestion on the approaches to the free bridges. Bronx residents were the most vehement in their opposition because the Harlem River bridges were so short. Yet, if those remained free, Brooklyn and Queens residents claimed favoritism toward The Bronx and Westchester. The result was that nothing changed except that the disparity between free and toll crossings grew wider with each toll increase, with the numbers of drivers seeking to avoid the tolls. This also further increased traffic congestion.

Congestion Pricing

Fast-forward to a few years ago when Mayor Bloomberg proposed Congestion Pricing to provide the MTA with a steady revenue stream, which would end the need for frequent fare increases. When have we heard that before?

That plan had several advantages over tolling the free bridges. Motorists are charged a fee only when entering the congestion zone (Midtown and Downtown Manhattan) instead of the entire borough, and the charge is only from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, at least initially. This means that those who take the FDR Drive, to or from Brooklyn, to The Bronx and Westchester are not charged since they are only passing through Manhattan. Also, those travelling between The Bronx and upper Manhattan are not charged.

Anyone already paying a toll would receive a credit toward the congestion price, in effect equalizing the cost of all the river crossings. It was fairer than tolling the bridges outright, but many believed the proposed charge was too high. They believed that the charge would have increased further once approved, administration costs would be too great, and there was no guarantee that the state would not further reduce its transit funding once Congestion Pricing was approved. It was also defeated.

Gridlock Sam Plan

New York’s “Gridlock Sam,” aka Sam Schwartz, a former NYC Transportation Commissioner, and supporter of bridge tolls since the 1970s, has put forth his own plan, which he recently unveiled to the general public in The Wall Street Journal.

One of the reasons I believe that tolls over the East River bridges were never enacted is that politicians always proposed charging the going rate for the crossings. As those rates kept increasing, the likelihood that the free bridges would be tolled was reduced. As a compromise, no discount to existing tolls was ever proposed. While Gridlock Sam’s proposal does not propose to lower any of the existing tolls between Manhattan and the outer boroughs, he does propose significant decreases for MTA crossings that do not enter Manhattan as an incentive to getting his plan approved. However, there still are major problems.

First, there is no guarantee that, once approved, the MTA will not vote in several years to increase those reduced tolls back to their former rate, eventually equalizing them with the tolls for bridges and tunnels entering Manhattan’s Central Business District (CBD).

Second, unlike the mayor’s Congestion Pricing plan, Gridlock Sam’s congestion fee would be in effect all times 24 hours a day. Commuters would have to pay even at night, when there is virtually no congestion in Manhattan. There would also be no break to those who are just passing through.

Third, all monies (excluding administration costs) would go toward the MTA’s Capital Plan. The MTA could still favor the commuter rails over the subways and, more importantly, no monies would go toward the MTA’s operating costs. Presumably, some automobiles would be discouraged from entering the Manhattan CBD if the there was no free way to enter Manhattan. Those people would be diverted to the subways, which are already crowded during rush hours. The MTA would not be receiving additional operating funds to permit them to add service, which in some instances they cannot do anyway because the lines are already operating at capacity.

More crowded trains would be the result and that means more delayed trains and slower trips. Those currently using the free bridges would be hit hard, especially motorists who make multiple crossings a day. Most are already penalized by having to pay exorbitant rates to park, which, in itself, is a deterrent not to drive into Manhattan.

While parts of this plan make sense, such as reducing tolls for trips where mass transit is poor, the assumption that everyone entering Manhattan can do it quickly by subway is erroneous. Subway trips from outlying areas, such as Rockaway, can take much longer than by automobile, especially during off-hours.

The plan is far from perfect. Schwartz also includes a ridiculous proposal to charge 50 cents each way for bringing a bicycle into Manhattan. Perhaps the city should also charge 25 cents to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Also, any type of congestion pricing will have a minimal impact on congestion itself since no one is addressing its real causes — double parking; frequent lane closures, causing merging and bottlenecks, and not enough nighttime deliveries. Private automobiles account for a small minority of Midtown Manhattan’s street traffic. The bulk of the traffic is comprised of delivery trucks; buses; utility or government vehicles; those with special parking privileges, such as police and court officers, and taxis and limousines.

Schwartz is also not estimating the negative effect on the economy such, as less frequent trips to the theater and Manhattan restaurants if there are no cheap ways to enter Manhattan by car. Few want to return home late at night to the outskirts of the city by train and infrequent buses.


Solutions must be found to the MTA’s funding problems. All alternatives need to be considered. They include reinstatement of the commuter tax; an MTA surcharge on those businesses in the heart of Midtown, which benefit the most from the existing mass transit system; dissolving the MTA and returning control to the city, or assuring that the MTA operates more efficiently. Fastrack is an example of how they have been trying to do that.

The incentive for the MTA to continue to find efficiencies must not decrease by granting them multiple fare and toll increases with only a single set of hearings. The public must speak out, that continually increasing fares and tolls without the state and city paying their fare share, and without corresponding service improvements, is not a long-term solution. Signing Transportation Alternatives’ petition is one way of sending a message to the elected officials that you care and are not satisfied with business as usual.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).