Yesterday, we were told, was the one hundredth anniversary of the removal of tolls from the East River bridges, which at the time ranged from one to ten cents.
One would think that such an occasion would be a day of celebration, people rejoicing at the freedom to travel from Manhattan to Brooklyn and Queens and to return without stopping to pay a toll to a troll. A bridge is a street over water was the prevailing philosophy when the city was young and growing.
For most of us, that is our sentiment today, but a cadre of transit activists insistently desires a return to the days of the toll collector on the bridge, as well as charging motorists to go from one neighborhood to another in Manhattan.
There is a politically correct sentiment that the automobile is an evil contraption, similar to the feeling in the 19th century that horseless carriages were infernal machines, whereas horse droppings, which are organic, were no problem. The truly committed car-haters try one scheme after another to make using a car in the city expensive, uncomfortable and, where they can, illegal. These nanny-staters want you to travel their way or not at all. Their credo: two wheels good, four wheels bad.
One technique the Luddites employ is to expand vastly a network of lanes reserved exclusively for bicyclists, even in narrow streets of lower Manhattan, where there is barely room for one lane of traffic alongside the parked vehicles. This experiment was tried on a much more modest scale in the Koch administration; it ended with the mayor over-ruling the transportation commissioner, declaring the experiment unsuccessful and closing down the lanes. Bicycling on city streets is desirable, but it can have tragic outcomes, with the death of the gifted Marilyn Dershowitz, mowed down by a mail truck on West 29th Street in Manhattan, the most recent example.
We recognize that there are various modes of transportation in New York City: railroads, subways, buses, cars and trucks, taxicabs, motorcycles, ferries, pedicabs, bicycles and travel by foot. They should all be encouraged and supported where their use is appropriate because they are needed to take New Yorkers where they want to go. One type of vehicle should not be considered as the enemy of every other.
Three years ago, the Assembly defeated a proposal to charge fees for travel on the city streets. It was called "congestion pricing," as if it were a remedy for a disease, congestion of the lung or the throat. In fact, once such a scheme is adopted, toll gates could be placed anywhere, at any hours, if not immediately, then by amendment of the law, which would be much easier to achieve than its adoption. The income tax began in 1913 ranging from 1 to 7 percent.
London has already raised its congestion fee from five to 12 pounds, and increased the area in which it is charged. If the purpose of the plan is to meet the capital or operating deficits of the transit system, a new revenue stream will lead to increased expenditures, both for labor and for capital costs.
The recent construction history of the MTA is exemplified by the 2 Broadway fiasco, which in terms of wasted money, adjusted for inflation, exceeds CityTime in the annals of municipal scandal. A prime office building location, in the financial district at the southern tip of Manhattan, was selected for back-office use, when space could have been acquired in Brooklyn or Queens for far less money. Then, extensive renovations, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, were paid for by the MTA. People from the MTA and union officials were convicted and sent to jail for their role in the corruption. On top of all that, the MTA does not even own the building; it leases it from one Tamir Sapir, an immigrant from the Soviet Union who drove a taxicab and later became a real estate magnate. Sapir is a good example of the opportunities available in America, but leasing from him is by no means the best way to spend public funds, which have to be made up out of the farebox or taxation revenues. Google Sapir for information about his legal and political connections.
The concept of observing 2011 by regressing to a system discarded in 1911 is simply a method for a wasteful free-spending agency to meet its chronic financial needs by imposing additional taxes on the people. Here are ideas the MTA does not seem to have thought of yet: impose a sales tax on transit fares; put odometers on automobiles and charge for each mile the streets are used; increase municipal garage fees to the level of privately-owned garages and parking lots. In case you didn't know, the last sentence is irony, like Swift's "A Modest Proposal," but not as well done.
The extravagant reconstruction of the Fulton Street subway connection is a prime example of overbuilding at public expense, which exceeded a billion dollars for what is essentially a pre-existing subway interchange. The excuse here was that there was federal money available which had to be spent in lower Manhattan. The half-billion dollar reconstruction of the South Ferry station was marginally more useful, but also over-engineered. The wholesale destruction of trees in Battery Park has yet to be remedied.
Mass transit is important and needs adequate support. The lockbox should be kept locked. The MTA, however, does not deserve a blank check, nor should it acquire a new revenue streams by burdening New Yorkers whose only taxable act is trying to go from one part of the city to another.
Public officials who oppose new taxes should realize that this scheme is a particularly burdensome tax whose impact will be felt by people whose jobs require local travel. Whatever costs accrue to business will be passed on to consumers in the form of price increases.
New York City did the right thing a century ago. Let us not undo the good work of our ancestors.