MTA Tolls Bell On CBB Rebate
In financial distress and scrounging for any dollar it can get, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has announced that it will vote next month to do away with the decade-old fare rebate program that allows local residents with an EZ-Pass device to traverse the Veterans Memorial Cross Bay Bridge for free.
"The elimination of the resident rebate program at Cross Bay Bridge is, at this point, a proposed cut that the MTA board will vote on next month," said Joyce Mulvaney, a spokesperson for the quasi-public agency. "The MTA's proposed budget addresses significant budget gaps in 2009 and beyond due to plummeting tax revenues, higher fuel costs and elevated debt service obligations. The MTA awaits the release of the Ravitch Commission's recommendations in December and hopes that they will be implemented to restore financial stability to the MTA."
Mulvaney told The Wave on Tuesday that the rebate program for Rockaway and Broad Channel residents is the only such program in the city and that it costs the MTA $3.6 million yearly.
She added, however, that locals would still get a reduced toll even if the rebate program ends.
"There will still be a resident discount that gets the [one-way] toll down to $1.03 with EZ-Pass," she said.
Those without an EZ-Pass account would have to pay the full toll.
Broad Channel resident Dan Tubridy, who was instrumental in getting the rebate program in 1996, says that he always knew this could happen.
"We were told from the beginning that they could roll it back with a stroke of the pen, and they did after all this time," Tubridy said, adding that the move has angered him and many other Broad Channel residents.
"I'm not optimistic that we can roll back this decision," he said on Tuesday. "There is only one person who can change this, and that is the governor, who controls the MTA board. We really need Audrey [Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer] and Malcolm [State Senator Malcolm Smith] to get to the governor and tell him how important this program is for Broad Channel and Rockaway residents."
Tubridy says that it will take a mixture of activism and politics to stay the plan.
"We got this plan in the first place because [Senator] Al D'Amato wanted a one fare ride for Nassau County residents who commuted to New York City," Tubridy said. "He didn't want his riders to pay another fare when they transferred from the bus to the subway system. There were negotiations internally and the trade was made - his transfers for our bridge rebate."
"The elimination of the toll heralded the renaissance of Rockaway," Tubridy added. "It allowed for the development of Arverne By The Sea and helped Rockaway businesses. We have to ask what putting the toll back on the bridge will do to Rockaway. What will it mean when locals have to pay $150 or $200 a month to travel across the bridge that now costs them nothing?"
"We need to pack the MTA meeting [on December 10] to show that residents care about the rebate program and we have to get our community civic groups to put people on the street here in Rockaway to show that we have strength in numbers," he added.
Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer remembers all too well the battles that Rockaway went through to get the toll rebate program.
She wants to see it continue and is optimistic that the state legislature will come up with a plan to stop the MTA cuts.
"We hope to go back up to Albany in early January and come up with dedicated funds to help the MTA cut its deficit," Pheffer said. "Putting a toll back on the Cross Bay Bridge is like putting a tollbooth in the middle of Queens Boulevard. We have to find them a steady stream of funding that does not include cuts or increased fares and tolls. There should be no tolls on a bridge that connects two communities in the same zip code."
Pheffer believes that much of what the MTA has proposed is "hype" designed to spur the state government to come up with the money.
"This is like the congestion pricing business and other hysteria," she says. "It is designed to get action."
Both Tubridy and Pheffer look forward to a report that is to be released by a commission headed by Richard Ravitch in December.
That report will make recommendations for addressing the budget crisis faced by the MTA.
It is widely expected to recommend, for example, tolls for the East River crossings that are now free.
Democratic District Leader Lew Simon, who was arrested and briefly held at the 100 Precinct for leading a march across the bridge in the late 1990s, and who claims to have been "the lead person" in getting the rebate program in the first place, said that his organization will provide buses to take locals to the Manhattan MTA meeting.
He also plans demonstrations in Rockaway and Broad Channel.
"We are committed to doing whatever we have to do, including handcuffing ourselves to the tollbooths to win this one," Simon said. "It is ridiculous that people in the same zip code have to pay to pick their kids up from school and do their civic duty."