December 9, By Christian Murray
A New York State Assembly bill is currently being drafted based on the controversial proposal to toll the free East River Bridges, including the Queensboro, according the advocacy group Move NY.
The bill is expected to be introduced in the State Assembly in spring, a representative from Move NY, which is spearheading the plan, told the Community Board 2 Transportation Committee on Monday.
The bill, which will be based on a proposal put forward by Move NY early this year, would introduce a $5.54 each way E-ZPass toll on the four free East River bridges, or $8 without E-ZPass. It would also toll Manhattan at 60th Street.
The plan would reduce fares on other, MTA-owned bridges, including the Triborough/RFK, Whitestone and Throgs Neck, by $2.50.
Plan advocates claim the new toll structure would raise an additional $1.5 billion in revenue each year that could then be used to fix a crumbling infrastructure, combat future MTA toll price hikes and support public transportation expansions through, for example, Select Bus Service or ferries.
“We will be introducing legislation through the State legislature this spring,” Jonathan Matz, campaign coordinator and analyst at Move NY, said at the committee meeting.
He said the bill is being “written as we speak” and that the group has Assembly members who will be introducing it. However, he said he is reluctant to name the sponsor(s) at this time.
Move NY argues that drivers should pay to use the congested East River bridges, particularly since mass transit is available in the areas they serve. The coalition also charges that the toll would reduce “bridge shopping,” where people deliberately drive to areas such as Queens Plaza to get onto a free bridge.
The plan needs to be passed by lawmakers in Albany to become a reality. While Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer came out in support of the plan earlier this year as well as more than a dozen other legislators in the Council’s progressive caucus, the decision will come to the State legislature.
The plan has received a mixed response from State officials.
At the Community Board 2 meeting earlier this month, State Sen. Mike Gianaris (who represents LIC/Astoria/Sunnyside/Woodside) said that he has spoken to representatives from Move NY and that he remains skeptical of the plan. He said that he would not hinder their effort to convince the public of its benefits, “but I am not there.”
State Sen. Jose Peralta, who represents Jackson Heights, is among the few Queens legislators who support the proposal.
“I believe this plan is reasonable and it makes sense. For too long, tolls on some bridges have grown year after year, while others have seen dwindling maintenance at the cost of a free ride,” he said.
Peralta added that “this is a chance to bring greater equity in the costs borne by commuters as we improve our transportation infrastructure and reduce traffic for years to come.”
Move NY argues that the plan is fairer for drivers on the Triborough/RFK and other tolled bridges, who it says are supporting the free bridges despite having fewer public transportation alternatives.
Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, who represents Long Island City and Sunnyside, did not respond to phone calls. Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, who represents Astoria, could not be reached.
In April, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, in a joint statement supported by four State Senators and nine Assembly Members (including just one western Queens representative, Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry), called the plan “unfair to the families who live in the transit desert of Queens as it would landlock our borough.”
The statement questioned whether the plan would generate any tangible transportation upgrades for Queens residents or amount to anything more than “an interesting idea.”
Matz recognized on Monday that “Queens will be a tough nut to crack” but said that Move NY has had meetings with several Queens legislators in recent times who have softened their stance toward the plan.
“There is a built in population that will reflexively reject tolling reform,” Matz said. However, “the more people we speak to, the less misperception there is out there.”