How truckers figure into a bold plan to upgrade New York City transportation

By David Tanner, Land Line senior editor | 2/19/2015

Access to New York City comes at a heavy price for the 30,000 commercial vehicles that pick up and deliver there each day. Many truckers pay bridge tolls up to $90 only to end up stuck in traffic like everyone else. Is there a solution to city’s unique transportation challenges and, more importantly for truckers, what will it cost them?

A group called Move NY believes it has the solution, and it’s not the one that relies on increasing truck tolls to pay for everything else.

The man spearheading the effort, Sam Schwartz, perhaps better known by the moniker “Gridlock Sam,” says the plan actually reduces truck tolls on some bridges by 40 percent.

“Many trucks coming from the west, which is a big source of our trucks, come across the Verrazano Bridge, and the Verrazano Bridge has a one-way toll as high as $90, or it will be on March 22, for a five-axle vehicle,” Schwartz told Land Line Magazine.

“We’ve lowered the tolls in those areas because we think it’s unfair not just from the truckers’ point of view that the tolls … are subsidizing the subway system and the rail system going to Manhattan Central Business District. Every time there’s a need for more money for transit, we raise the tolls in the wrong places.”

Schwartz, a former NYC traffic commissioner in the 1980s, explained how the plan is able to lower truck tolls on the Verrazano and other bridges operated and maintained by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

“We’ve had seven toll hikes since 2000, and we’ve had 16 toll hikes since I started driving in the late 1960s,” he said, “and yet there is one driver that has faced no increases whatsoever, and that’s the driver that goes across the East River bridges or comes into Manhattan from the north heading south.”

“So what we do then is we reintroduce tolls on East River bridges, which were tolled until 1911. I doubt any of your readers recall that,” Schwartz said. “So we did have tolls. And we also introduce tolls coming south of 60th Street. So everyone entering and exiting would have to pay a toll. Everybody now coming from New Jersey has to pay a toll anyhow.”

Tolling existing toll-free structures promises to be a tough sell, Schwartz admits, because those who are used to not paying a toll will want to keep it that way.

Schwartz defends the plan as an “everybody pays” model, saying it’s not fair that truckers have to pay $90 on some bridges while others enter toll-free.

“For the bridges that have nothing to do with the Central Business District of Manhattan, we’ve slashed the tolls by around 40 percent,” he said. “All of Long Island gets its goods largely from the Cross Bronx Expressway or Bruckner (Expressway), and come across the Throg’s Neck Bridge, and a lot of other trucks reach Long Island and Brooklyn or the Bronx over the Verrazano Bridge.”

Money paid into the MTA system will go to improve the system as a whole – the bridges, the buses, the transit and the subways. Move NY estimates its plan would bring in an additional $1.5 billion over what is collected now.

Schwartz says there are other incentives for people to consider, even the truckers that right now look for toll-free routes.

“We would cap the toll for the truckers to be a one-time toll (per day),” he said.

That means that once a toll is paid on a bridge, the trucker would not have to pay another toll on that bridge until after 24 hours goes by.

Schwartz said paying by the day instead of by individual bridge fare is something only for commercial vehicles and taxi cabs.

“We want to promote commerce,” he said. “We want to encourage goods deliveries, and we think this is a fair way to do it. So our plan has that particular aspect, which has gotten the motor trucking association here in New York very interested.”

Another plus, he says, is the fact that out of the $1.5 billion in net revenue gained each year, about $375 million would be dedicated to road and bridge repair.

Schwartz sees that as an adequate boost for roads and bridges given New York’s long history of using toll revenue to pay for the transportation system as a whole.

“We can see what’s happening with aged bridges around the country,” he said. “The first victim of a bridge that is not as strong as it used to be is a truck. They’re the ones that get rerouted great distances because the bridges don’t have the funding and have been allowed to deteriorate. So this provides for a substantial amount of money to maintain our roads and bridges.”

Toll rates would be higher during peak times and lower during off-peak times under the plan. That could end up costing truckers on just-in-time schedules more money than the ones who have flexibility to wait for off-peak times to make a move.

Schwartz says opponents will argue that new tolls will penalize those with lower incomes the most, but he says he believes many of those families are already using the subways and are not the ones driving into Manhattan.

“I live and work in Manhattan, and it costs a very pretty penny,” he adds. “At times it reaches almost three digits to park your car, and they don’t even wash it for that.”

Move NY is all about the tradeoffs, Schwartz says.

“At this point we’ve changed the narrative of this, and we hear people talking about the fairness of the plan. If we were simply going to introduce tolls surrounding the Manhattan Central Business District and not offer toll relief in all other parts of the city, that’s a recipe for political failure. And it’s also not good for the city,” he said. “It’s not good for drivers in the city nor for the truckers that deliver all the goods that we rely on.”

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