Meanwhile, it costs nothing to take the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges across the East River to Manhattan.
“There is no rhyme or reason to the tolls that people pay,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said when he addressed the issue in January by calling for “lowering the outer-borough tolls, which are crazy high” as part of any congestion pricing plan.
For commuters like Marcel Vantuyn, the tolls add up quickly, even with E-ZPass discounts. He pays $88.85 every week in combined tolls for the Verrazano and Goethals bridges just to shuttle back and forth from his home in Brooklyn and his job in Elizabeth, N.J. “Monthly tolls basically add up to a car payment,” he said.
Mr. Vantuyn, 58, said that while a reliable public transit system is vital for the city, the funding for it should be raised from taxes on all city residents, and not just tolls on drivers. “It’s not good policy to target a particular group,” he said. “I think everything for the common good should come from a common pool.”
Truckers pay even higher tolls. On the Verrazano, the full tolls range from $34 to $132 depending on the number of axles, and with an E-ZPass discount, $20.80 to $79.52.
Steve Margarella, 64, who owns a road construction company on Staten Island, has to absorb between $2,000 and $10,000 in bridge tolls every month to send his fleet of trucks around the city. “It puts all Staten Island companies at a disadvantage,” he said.
In some neighborhoods, the tolls also lead to spillover congestion from “bridge-shopping.” Canal Street in Lower Manhattan has become jammed with drivers from Brooklyn bound for New Jersey who go out of their way to avoid the Verrazano toll. Many cross over on the Manhattan Bridge, travel along Canal Street and then into the Holland Tunnel to New Jersey.
“You have a situation because there’s so much excess regional traffic coming through what is now a neighborhood,” said Ellen Baer, president of Hudson Square Connection, a business improvement district, who has seen traffic to the Holland Tunnel block intersections, impede deliveries and worsen noise and pollution.
The wide disparity in bridge tolls is largely a function of who runs what bridge. Of the more than 2,000 bridges in the city, the major crossings are operated by three different entities: the city’s Transportation Department, the state-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the interstate Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The city oversees 789 bridges and does not charge tolls on any of them. Some elected officials view the East River bridges as a free public resource and have opposed periodic attempts over the years to toll them.
In contrast, the Port Authority and M.T.A. charge tolls on their bridges, but independently set the amounts based on their financial needs. “You’re buying more than the bridge when you pay that toll,” said Robert E. Paaswell, a civil engineering professor at the City College of New York. “In theory, tolls are supposed to go away when a bridge is paid for, but that rarely happens. The costs are skewed because in addition to maintenance, they are used by different agencies for different purposes.”
Tolls from the four Port Authority-run bridges — the Bayonne, Goethals, Outerbridge Crossing and George Washington — and the Lincoln and Holland tunnels are used not only to support those crossings but also public transit services, including the Port Authority bus terminal and the PATH train system. Ron Marsico, a spokesman for the authority, said that it “consolidates the revenues from all its operations to meet the capital investment and operating needs of its facilities.” The last toll increase was in 2011, and less than 15 percent of drivers — those without E-ZPass — currently pay the full $15 cash toll, he said.
The M.T.A. operates seven bridges, including the Verrazano, which was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it opened in 1964 with a toll of just 50 cents. Today, it is one of the city’s busiest links with, on average, 196,000 vehicle crossings per day on weekdays, of which Staten Island residents account for about 75,000 crossings per day, according to M.T.A. data.
M.T.A. officials said that the $17 toll is higher than its other bridges because it is priced to cover the return trip. A federal law pushed through by then U.S. Representative Guy V. Molinari, a Republican from Staten Island, converted two-way toll collections to one-way in 1986 to reduce commuting times and air pollution on the Staten Island end of the bridge. Similarly, in 1970, the Port Authority decided on one-way tolls on traffic going into New York City to reduce congestion and emissions.
The M.T.A.’s other major bridge crossings — including the Bronx-Whitestone, Throgs Neck and Robert F. Kennedy (formerly the Triborough) — all charge a top toll of $8.50 each way, for a total of $17 round-trip.
The Verrazano toll has long riled local residents on both sides of the bridge, many of whom subscribe to an enduring urban myth — repeatedly debunked — that the bridge was supposed to be free once it was all paid for. Instead, the toll has steadily crept upward, most recently by $1 last year.
“It’s not because the bridge is getting more expensive,” said Samuel I. Schwartz, a transportation consultant who has proposed reducing such tolls as part of a congestion pricing plan. “It’s because we need more and more money to pay for the subways and trains coming into Manhattan.”
From the Verrazano alone, the M.T.A. collected $417 million in tolls in 2017, up from $393 million the year before. M.T.A. officials said the money paid for the bridge’s maintenance, services and debt, with any remaining surplus going to support public transit.
About 85 percent of vehicles crossing the Verrazano qualify for the E-ZPass rate, according to M.T.A. data. Of those, about 45 percent received an additional Staten Island resident discount, paying $5.50, or $3.20 for car pools.
But many drivers and their supporters complain that efforts to offset the high tolls do not go far enough.
State Senator Martin J. Golden, a Republican from Brooklyn who has led rallies at the foot of the bridge for lower tolls, said many Brooklyn residents also relied heavily on the Verrazano yet do not receive the resident discount. “Talk about gouging people,” Mr. Golden said. “My community is very upset. It’s a tremendous burden on them and it shouldn’t be.”
On the other end of the bridge, Linda Baran, president of the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce, said she recently heard from an architect struggling to find workers willing to commute because of the tolls “and he’s not the only business that has mentioned it.”
“People hesitate to visit Staten Island because the tolls are so high,” she said. “It’s really frustrating when you see the East River bridges are free. I believe that everybody needs to give a little.”
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