Wednesday, 6/12/02: Time for Bridge Tolls.

Wow, the traffic is bad. I drove into Manhattan the other day to get some boxes out of mini-storage and haul them back to Brooklyn. It took about 30 minutes to go the mile or so from Park Slope to the Manhattan Bridge via 4th Avenue and Flatbush. The air over Manhattan was thick with haze, reminding me of L.A. in the mid-'80s when it was at its polluted worst.

In Brooklyn, at the nasty convergence of Flatbush, Atlantic and 4th, two guys were doing brisk business selling cold bottled water to sweaty, immobile drivers. Though it was hot, hazy and hard to breathe sitting there in my girlfriend's non-air conditioned 1989 Toyota pick-up, there was something heartening and distinctly New York about the water entrepreneurs. Even in the most hostile environment, life flourishes and guys figure out how to make a buck.

The question is: When is the City going to wise up and start doing the same thing? My friend Charlie Komanoff, a visionary economist, transportation expert and the founder of Right of Way, makes a strong argument in today's Daily News that New York City should start collecting tolls on the East River bridges. And we should start NOW. He's also launched a web site called BridgeTolls.org that is really worth checking out.

The logic for putting tolls on the East River bridges is so strong, it's pretty much unassailable (though, I invite you to assail it on the Lamppost and would be pleased if you did your assailing in 17 syllables). The city is in its worst fiscal crisis in 30 years. Tolls will bring in as much as $2 million a day, offsetting the city's $5 billion budget deficit by as much as 15%. With EZPass and even better electronic toll collection systems used now on the West Coast, bridge tolls won't require toll plazas or traffic slow-downs. It's estimated that a 10% reduction in traffic can speed up local car and truck trips by as much as 50%. Global temperatures are rising, local air quality is decreasing, the economy is faltering, and New York City traffic is at a honking, spewing, standstill (buses are now creeping across town as slow as 4 m.p.h).

Nevertheless, as momentum builds for bridge tolls, keep your eye open for the reports and analyses condemning tolls as bad for the city's health and economy. These reports will be conducted and funded largely by the parking garage industry and local politicians from the far outer Boroughs. As was the case with the last report these guys issued, the methodology and analysis will be laughably bogus. But it'll still get taken seriously by the local papers because these garage guys have a lot of financial clout. Also, watch out for those two guys selling water bottles at Flatbush and 4th. They might start a pro-traffic political action group and start issuing reports as well.

As best I can tell, there's no rational argument against developing some systemic ways to discourage single-passenger vehicle trips in New York City. Especially, when those trips are increasingly taken in gigantic, road-hogging, gas-guzzling, exhaust-spewing vehicles that make no sense on our 19th century street grid and on our enivornmentally assaulted planet.

As Charlie says, it's all over but the screaming.