Gov. Hochul backs congestion pricing but gives free tolls to Queens, Bronx drivers

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By Dan Sears

This column originally appeared in On The Way, a weekly newsletter covering everything you need to know about NYC-area transportation.

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Tolls for thee, but not for me

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and state lawmakers have tapped a little-known transit fund to dole out free tolls to Queens and Bronx drivers — a giveaway that critics say conflicts with congestion pricing’s goal of discouraging driving.

Starting Saturday, Bronx residents who sign up for a new program will get an instant rebate on the $3.18 E-ZPass toll to cross the Henry Hudson Bridge. Queens residents will get a full discount on the $2.60 Cross Bay Bridge toll. The fund will also maintain an existing discounted rate of $2.75 for Staten Island residents to cross the Verrazzano Bridge.

New Jersey Congressman Josh Gottheimer said the rebates were a slap in the face to other drivers across the region who will have to pay a $15 daytime toll to enter Manhattan below 60th Street once the MTA launches congestion pricing.

“The irony here is rich,” said Gottheimer, one of the Garden State’s most vocal critics of congestion pricing. “They don’t really care about congestion or pollution.”

The state will cover the cost of the free tolls by pulling $20.5 million from New York’s “Outer Borough Transportation Account,” which was established by state lawmakers in 2018 with the goal of boosting transit options in city neighborhoods that are far from subway stations, the MTA confirmed. The account is funded by surcharges on taxi and for-hire vehicle trips that enter the busiest parts of Manhattan.

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But last fall, Hochul — along with representatives appointed by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins — ordered nearly all the money be used for toll discounts to drivers, according to a letter from Heastie’s office obtained by Gothamist.

“The outer borough transit fund was supposed to be to help transit improvements in the outer boroughs to allow for more people to take public transportation,” Queens State Senator Leroy Comrie told Gothamist about its inception back in 2019.

Just $1.5 million of the $22 million available from the fund will be used for public transit. The MTA will offer discounted $5 LIRR tickets to Far Rockaway residents for trips that start and end within the five boroughs.

MTA Chair Janno Lieber said Wednesday that Hochul and state lawmakers should rethink how the fund is used.

“The future revenues of the outer borough transportation account should include investments in making transit more attractive or more affordable,” he said.

Gottheimer said the fund revealed the MTA’s true motive for congestion pricing.

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“They’re using this money to help encourage more people to drive into New York City,” he said. “They just want money.”

Curious Commuter

Question:

Is the MTA planning to adjust rush hour trains when fewer people commute because they are working from home? There are massively fewer people commuting now on Fridays, for example, than before the pandemic. But Tuesday and Wednesday trains are crowded.

– Jennifer, Brooklyn

Answer:

The pandemic — and the growth of remote work that came with it — certainly changed the way New Yorkers use mass transit. But not as much as you might think.

Ridership on the system remains down by roughly 30% from before the pandemic. And data shows usage varies depending on the day of the week. Last Wednesday, subway turnstiles clocked 3.6 million entries, compared to about 3.3 million last Monday and Friday. 

But that difference isn’t new: Data shows before the pandemic, the subway also saw fewer riders on Mondays and Fridays than on Wednesdays.

MTA spokesperson Joana Flores pointed out that midday ridership on Fridays is actually higher than during the same hours on Tuesdays, Wednesday or Thursdays. 

Still, MTA officials have said they’ve addressed the changing travel patterns over the last year by increasing midday service on the B, C, D, J and M lines and adding more weekend service on the 3 and 5 trains. 

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But even if the MTA wanted to make more granular changes to its schedules, they’d run into a bureaucracy that’s hardly changed in decades. Subway operators and conductors pick their schedules twice a year. Subway timetables have little flexibility. If the MTA wanted to create special schedules for, say, Wednesdays, they’d have to reform the way it’s planned subway service for decades. 

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