Assemblyman David Weprin and State Senator Tony Avella both stood in solidarity with other local elected officials and civic leaders to talk about legislation they introduced that would prohibit the city from placing tolls on any of the East River bridges.
“This is nothing but another tax on middle-class families and small businesses,” said Avella of the plan by transportation advocates MoveNY.
MoveNY's plan proposes reducing tolls in certain areas and placing tolls on currently free East River crossings. MoveNY says the plan would raise $1.35 billion annually and cover the funding hole in the five-year capital plan of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), as well as alleviate congestion.
Opponents of the plan, who gathered at the entrance to the Queensboro Bridge in Long Island City on Sunday morning, argue the plan isn't fair for all New York City, especially residents of northeast Queens, where mass transit options are few and far between.
“Not all locations in New York City are easily accessible by public transportation,” said Weprin. “The many disenfranchised populations in the northern, southern, and eastern Queens neighborhoods, as well as many parts in Brooklyn, do not have the same luxuries as those in Manhattan with readily accessible subway systems nearby their homes and businesses.”
Weprin said there are other ways to fund the MTA capital plan, including the idea of a 1 percent commuter tax, where half of the revenue would go to the city and the other half would go to the MTA.
“It is the wrong plan, and it will impose an undue financial burden on our working and middle-class commuters who must rely on those roadways, whether to make a living, to visit their loved ones across town, or to travel to Manhattan to receive lifesaving medical care not often accessible in outer-borough hospitals,” he said.
“It will also be a major financial burden on small businesses that rely on the free bridges for multiple trips daily and may result in additional charges to consumers,” he added.
Thomas Grech, executive director of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, spoke about how the plan would negatively impact businesses in Queenz and how congestion pricing has not been successful in other cities. He pointed to London, where he said far less revenue has been generated than expected.
He said that the escalation in cost of doing business, especially for small businesses, would make congestion pricing even tougher to swallow for the 900 businesses and nearly 50,000 New Yorkers his organization represents.
Uncertainty was also another problem that elected officials had with the proposal.
“The plan depends on the goodwill of the MTA,” said newly sworn-in councilman Barry Grodenchik. “We do not know where this revenue is going to go, we do not know where a future governor or future mayor may want to send it.”
Other officials expressed fear over a future rise of tolls; the announcement was made the same day that a new $15 toll went in effect for Hudson River crossings. They said there was nothing to stop governing bodies from raising the tolls sharply in subsequent years after they're introduced.
MoveNY's plan has received some support in Queens, specifically in the very community that the elected officials held their press conference. In October, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents Long Island City, and the City Council Progressive Caucus announced support for the MoveNY plan.
“We’ve seen massive congestion problems both on the subway cars and platforms of the 7 train themselves and in the run up to the Queensboro Bridge,” said Van Bramer. “That’s why I am saying now we need to focus on this investment into our mass transit. The Move NY plan is the best and most responsible way to get us there.”
Alex Matthiessen, campaign director for MoveNY, responded to the press conference by saying that it’s not something they’re too concerned about.
“This is nothing new,” he said. “Mr. Avella and Mr. Weprin seem to hold an annual press conference criticizing the MoveNY plan around this time of year, and they usually get a pretty small turnout, not a lot of attention.”
Matthiessen said he thinks there’s a lot of mistaken assumptions about all the benefits the plans would bring to residents of their district, including guaranteed improvements to the roadways that they travel every day and a reduction in traffic of nearly 50 percent at every bridge in Queens besides the Queensboro.
He added that for too long, commuters have suffered through a plan that’s not equitable.
“The existing system is what’s unfair and that’s what these guys don't get,” Matthiessen said.
He also called on both Avella and Weprin to submit their own plans and have a debate rather than oppose the plan through legislation,
“What we need is leadership,” he said. “What I would do is, I would invite them, once again, put forward their ideas in a bill and let the best plan win. If they think that they’ve got a plan that’s better, that’s got more political support, then they should put that bill forward.”