By Paula Katinas and Mary Frost
Two-way tolls could soon be reinstated to the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, 33 years after the federal government instituted a one-way toll system on the Brooklyn-Staten Island span.
A trio of Democratic lawmakers representing parts of Brooklyn — U.S. Reps. Max Rose, Nydia Velázquez and Jerrold Nadler — are scheduled to make the big announcement on Sunday on Staten Island. Rose, Velázquez and Nadler will appear with MTA Chairperson Patrick Foye to announce legislation to bring back two-way tolls.
Under the current system, which has been in place since 1986, the toll, now $19, is collected from motorists driving toward Staten Island. Motorists heading toward Brooklyn drive for free.
Rose, whose congressional district includes Bay Ridge, along with several neighborhoods in Southwest Brooklyn as well as the entire borough of Staten Island, talked about bringing back two-way tolls at a town hall he held in Bay Ridge last month.
He noted that the one-way toll was installed through congressional action three decades ago. “At the time, it made sense,” he told residents at the town hall. There was great concern about air pollution caused by traffic back-ups on Staten Island as drivers waited in line to pay the toll, he said.
But these days, drivers “toll shop,” Rose said at the town hall, explaining that motorists drive into Brooklyn for free and then find a way to return to Staten Island without paying.
Rose also reiterated his view in an op-ed he wrote for the Staten Island Advance on Thursday.
“Repealing the federal mandate on one-way tolling and splitting the toll to $9.50 in each direction for non-residents would drastically cut down on congestion and improve our daily rush-hour madness. It’s also estimated that splitting the Verrazzano toll would bring in millions of dollars in additional revenue by cutting down on toll evaders. Sounds like a win-win: Less congestion, more revenue,” Rose wrote in the Staten Island Advance.
Councilmember Justin Brannan, who represents Bay Ridge — whose residents have complained for years about traffic backups due to the one-way tolling — applauded the legislation.
“Two-way tolling is a common sense plan that will reduce traffic congestion and pollution on our local streets,” he said. “Gone will be the days of toll-shopping trucks snaking their way through our community and choking our streets just to save a few bucks. Now, the only reason we’ll see them in Bay Ridge or Dyker Heights is if they need to make a local delivery.”
The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge opened in 1964 and from that time until 1986, the bridge operated under a two-way toll structure. In 1985, then-Congressmember Guy Molinari co-sponsored a bill to require the MTA to institute a one-way toll system. The bill passed.
The issue drew federal attention because the bridge is part of the interstate highway system.
In 1986, the MTA Board voted to install a one-way toll system.
Reinstating two way tolls on the Verrazzano would help reduce congestion on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), officials and traffic advocates say. The tolls are an integral part of several proposed solutions to rebuilding a decrepit 1.5-mile stretch of the BQE near the Brooklyn Bridge.
Proposals to reconstruct the triple cantilever underpinning the Brooklyn Heights Promenade call for the tolls as a method to discourage trucks and other through traffic from using the BQE as a free route to New Jersey. Currently, drivers cross from New Jersey into Staten Island, then into Brooklyn via the Verrazzano, then move along the BQE to the free Manhattan Bridge, then cross over to lower Manhattan and head back to New Jersey through free Port Authority tunnels.
This route funnels excessive traffic along the crumbling BQE triple cantilever, which must be rehabilitated by 2026, according to the city Department of Transportation. Imposing two-way tolls would discourage these free through trips and extend the life of the roadway, advocates say.
Many community associations and traffic advocates have called for the restoration of the two-way tolls, including the Brooklyn Heights Association, Cobble Hill Association, A Better Way NYC and the Regional Plan Association.
Several proposals for rebuilding the BQE call for reducing traffic lanes from six to four and depending on congestion pricing and Verrazzano Bridge tolls to reduce traffic flow.
Carlo Scissura, president and CEO of the New York Building Congress who has been appointed to head the mayor’s new BQE panel, said in April that his priority now is “understanding what makes sense as we look at the future of transportation in New York. That includes congestion pricing, two-way tolls on the Verrazzano Bridge and changing traffic patterns.”
Advancements in technology now allow for high-speed toll collections, so reinstating the two-way tolls won’t increase pollution from idling vehicles, which was one of the original justifications in 1986 for implementing one-way tolling.
Staten Island residents receive a discount on the toll.
State Sen. Andrew Gounardes recently announced he is introducing legislation to give Brooklyn motorists who frequently travel over the bridge the same discount that Staten Islanders enjoy. Gounardes, a Democrat who represents Southwest Brooklyn, called the recently imposed $19 toll “highway robbery.”
Under his proposal, Brooklyn residents who drive over the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge 10 or more times a month would pay $5.50 per trip with E-ZPass, the same rate Staten Islanders pay.
“We have so many people who have to cross that bridge every single day,” Gounardes said.