By Len Maniace
The near collapse of New York City’s transportation system 30 years ago is never far from Sam Schwartz’s thoughts. Graffiti was just the most obvious affliction. Subway car doors didn’t open and their fluorescents bulbs didn’t light. There were an alarming number of track fires and train breakdowns. Calling the subway unpredictable was probably the nicest thing you could say.
Then there were the two bridges that nearly fell into the East River. Schwartz, aka Gridlock Sam, was the city’s chief transportation engineer at the time and he shut down the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges to prevent their collapse – and then presided over their rehabilitation.
The city’s transportation system is in far better shape today, but Schwartz sees danger signs. The money needed to maintain the system and keep it growing apace with ridership is not there – not without prohibitive increases on bridge tolls and transit fares. Hence, his fear of a slide back to the bad old days, and the terrible toll that would take on New York City’s economic and environmental sustainability.
Schwartz made his case for overhauling how New York funds its transportation system – complete with Power Point portraits of bridge girders resembling Swiss cheese – at a downtown eatery last week.
It would provide a $1.4 billion annual pot of money to improve transit and keep bridges in good repair, while reducing congestion, noise and air pollution as well as global warming CO2-emissions, he said. Plus, it would be fairer than the current system. Sounds too good to be true? Read on and decide.
The Brooklyn native calls his idea the Fair Tolling and Transportation Re-investment Plan. Realizing that’s quite a mouthful, Schwartz offered a beer to anyone coming up with a better name at last week’s presentation sponsored by the transit advocacy group, Riders Alliance. The offer still stands.
To develop the plan, Schwartz first wiped clean the current system of tolls on some bridges and none on others, an accident of history rather than logic or fairness, he maintains. (NYC fact: East River bridges had tolls until about 100 years ago when they were removed by Mayor William Gaynor.) Schwartz, then, put tolls back on the bridges, their size based on each bridge’s proximity to serious congestion and the availability transit alternatives. (You really didn’t think the tolls were gone for good?)
The results would be tolls on the now free East River Bridges and for motorists traveling across of 60th Street in Manhattan, major features of Mayor Bloomberg’s 2008 congestion-pricing plan. The City Council approved that plan, but then the state Legislature killed it after critics charged it was unfair to motorists.
There are key differences between the two, however, which Schwartz hopes will make the plan more palatable than its predecessor. The new plan would reduce tolls on MTA bridges where there is not a transit alternative to the bridge. (MTA bridges are those within the city that have tolls. They are connected to highways; the free East River bridges connect to city streets.)
That means bridges between Queens and the Bronx, and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island would see round-trip fares drop by roughly half for E-ZPass drivers and somewhat less for others. Similar reductions would occur on bridges from the Rockaways and on the Henry Hudson Bridge between the Bronx and the northern tip of Manhattan. Since many of the critics of the Bloomberg plan came from the city’s transit-poor outer reaches, Schwartz hopes the lower bridge tolls would soften that opposition.
The plan would raise $1.4 billion each year, money to repair bridges and roads, subsidize transit fares and operations, and pay for major system improvements – not only for subway and bus service, but also Long Island Railroad and Metro North commuter lines.
Another difference is approach. Critics of the earlier plan said Bloomberg sought to impose his plan without consultation. Schwartz intends to avoid that mistake and has been meeting with critics of the old plan and just about anyone who is interested. He recently began what he’s calling a 10-month “listening and explaining tour” aimed at demonstrating the merits of his plan.
(Background note: the subway system is now more popular than it’s been in a long time. One day before Schwartz’s presentation last week, WNYC reported that 2013’s total of 1.7 billion subway trips were the most in more than 60 years.)