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Tolls for thee, but not for me
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and state lawmakers have tapped a little-known transit fund to dole out free tolls to Queens and Bronx drivers — a giveaway that critics say conflicts with congestion pricing’s goal of discouraging driving.
Starting Saturday, Bronx residents who sign up for a new program will get an instant rebate on the $3.18 E-ZPass toll to cross the Henry Hudson Bridge. Queens residents will get a full discount on the $2.60 Cross Bay Bridge toll. The fund will also maintain an existing discounted rate of $2.75 for Staten Island residents to cross the Verrazzano Bridge.
New Jersey Congressman Josh Gottheimer said the rebates were a slap in the face to other drivers across the region who will have to pay a $15 daytime toll to enter Manhattan below 60th Street once the MTA launches congestion pricing.
“The irony here is rich,” said Gottheimer, one of the Garden State’s most vocal critics of congestion pricing. “They don’t really care about congestion or pollution.”
The state will cover the cost of the free tolls by pulling $20.5 million from New York’s “Outer Borough Transportation Account,” which was established by state lawmakers in 2018 with the goal of boosting transit options in city neighborhoods that are far from subway stations, the MTA confirmed. The account is funded by surcharges on taxi and for-hire vehicle trips that enter the busiest parts of Manhattan.
But last fall, Hochul — along with representatives appointed by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins — ordered nearly all the money be used for toll discounts to drivers, according to a letter from Heastie’s office obtained by Gothamist.
“The outer borough transit fund was supposed to be to help transit improvements in the outer boroughs to allow for more people to take public transportation,” Queens State Senator Leroy Comrie told Gothamist about its inception back in 2019.
Just $1.5 million of the $22 million available from the fund will be used for public transit. The MTA will offer discounted $5 LIRR tickets to Far Rockaway residents for trips that start and end within the five boroughs.
MTA Chair Janno Lieber said Wednesday that Hochul and state lawmakers should rethink how the fund is used.
“The future revenues of the outer borough transportation account should include investments in making transit more attractive or more affordable,” he said.
Gottheimer said the fund revealed the MTA’s true motive for congestion pricing.
“They’re using this money to help encourage more people to drive into New York City,” he said. “They just want money.”
This week in New York City transit news
- The Port Authority is moving ahead with a $10 billion replacement of Midtown’s miserable bus terminal. Read more.
- On Thursday, New Yorkers took their first rides on the MTA’s new “open gangway” subway cars, which lack interior doors, allowing riders to walk the entire length of the train. Read more.
- Almost 70% of fare evasion tickets issued between January and September 2023 were given out at about 100 subway stations. We mapped those summonses to see where enforcement was concentrated. Read more.
- Emergency exit gates at three subway stations will soon take 15 seconds to open as part of an effort to crack down on fare evasion. Read more.
- The New York metro area’s three major airports had their busiest year ever in 2023, according to the Port Authority. Read more.
- A City Council bill would increase the fines for drivers with idling vehicles — and the payout for citizens who report them. But one serial tipster, who’s accused of menacing a city employee over his idling reports, has been suspended from participating. Read more.
- The NYPD said more people were assaulted in the city’s subways in 2023 than in any other year since at least 1996, though overall subway crime dropped from 2022 to 2023. Read more.
- The MTA said problems with its radios may have contributed to the slow-moving crash of two subway trains on the Upper West Side in January. Read more.
- Several Metro-North stations along the Hudson River could be underwater — even on days when it’s not raining — if sea levels rise 30 inches by 2050, as predicted by the New York City Panel on Climate Change. (amNewYork)
- NJ Transit is increasing fares by 15%, which officials say is necessary to keep its trains and buses running. But some riders say those trains and buses aren’t reliable enough to warrant the hike. (The New York Times)
Is the MTA planning to adjust rush hour trains when fewer people commute because they are working from home? There are massively fewer people commuting now on Fridays, for example, than before the pandemic. But Tuesday and Wednesday trains are crowded.
– Jennifer, Brooklyn
The pandemic — and the growth of remote work that came with it — certainly changed the way New Yorkers use mass transit. But not as much as you might think.
Ridership on the system remains down by roughly 30% from before the pandemic. And data shows usage varies depending on the day of the week. Last Wednesday, subway turnstiles clocked 3.6 million entries, compared to about 3.3 million last Monday and Friday.
But that difference isn’t new: Data shows before the pandemic, the subway also saw fewer riders on Mondays and Fridays than on Wednesdays.
MTA spokesperson Joana Flores pointed out that midday ridership on Fridays is actually higher than during the same hours on Tuesdays, Wednesday or Thursdays.
Still, MTA officials have said they’ve addressed the changing travel patterns over the last year by increasing midday service on the B, C, D, J and M lines and adding more weekend service on the 3 and 5 trains.
But even if the MTA wanted to make more granular changes to its schedules, they’d run into a bureaucracy that’s hardly changed in decades. Subway operators and conductors pick their schedules twice a year. Subway timetables have little flexibility. If the MTA wanted to create special schedules for, say, Wednesdays, they’d have to reform the way it’s planned subway service for decades.
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