2009-01-16 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Back to The Future? The Toll Wars Redux
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

In the heady days of the early nineties, when the tough former U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani won his first term as mayor and brought a sense of governability back to New York City by getting squeegee people, graffiti artists and muggers off the streets and making city agencies responsive again, voters in Rockaway and Broad Channel finally shook off their torpor, too, and stormed the MTA's own Bastille to demand an end to an ever rising Crossbay Bridge toll that separated their combined south Queens community. Local politicians, fingers to the wind, speedily fell into line as people like Congressman Chuck Schumer (or was he Senator by then?) picked up the gauntlet to support local activists who were angrily marching on the tollbooths.

Famous for its capital cost overruns, bloated staff and obscene management salaries, the MTA got the message and reluctantly announced a toll rebate program for local residents. No, they wouldn't eliminate the toll entirely, a toll originally established to pay for bridge construction (long since paid off!), a toll which had grown from a dime per crossing to nearly two dollars a pop. But they'd give residents who signed up for the new E-Z Pass system a toll rebate every time they crossed the bridge. The new computerized drive-through charging mechanism required drivers to pay a onetime start-up fee to open an account and enabled the MTA to cut line toll collectors, thereby reducing their costs. It looked like a win-win for everybody — except visitors from outside the community, of course, who still had to pay to play on our shores. But at least locals no longer had to cough up cash every time they traveled from one side of their combined community to another.

But, of course, the MTA was thinking longer term. Turns out there was a reason they didn't just eliminate the toll for residents entirely. A little more than a decade later, with relatively little fanfare and in a great big hurry, the point-of-crossing resident toll rebate program has now been set to expire. Economic times are tougher now, of course, and, like government everywhere, you can be sure MTA officials haven't been a picture of efficiency during the boom years given continued growth in management headcount and salaries. Now, with revenues dropping everywhere, they need to pay for that profligacy on our backs again.

Had they actually eliminated the toll it would have been a lot harder to slap it back on now, of course. Like our current Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who raised our real estate taxes only to give us a yearly rebate check worth less than the increase and which he can halt at any time, the MTA already has everything in place to reverse its own historic "gift" to local residents. All they have to do is end the rebate program which deducts the charge from our E-Z Pass accounts every time we drive over the bridge and, voila, a new tax on vehicular traffic, bringing new money into MTA coffers, comes into being. It's swift, easy and barely noticeable.

The only change people will see, if they notice it at all, is the increase in payments they have to make each month into their E-Z Pass account. Sure there'll be some fuss and bother at first, a little huffing and puffing from the locals, but it'll all blow over, they figure. It took years for local residents to build up enough steam to undo the onerous bridge toll the last time out. Does anyone think it won't take at least as long now?

Last time the stars were in alignment, too. Giuliani was changing the way City Hall did business and voters were actually choosing Republicans at the ballot box. The presence of an alternative, of an active opposition party, stirred the pot. A Republican even grabbed our City Council seat from a Democratic incumbent who looked as if he'd been in office longer than the Crossbay Bridge had linked Rockaway to Broad Channel.

Political competition spurred pols in both parties to vie with one another to actually support local causes and pay attention to resident needs. But things are different now as national and state level Republicans lick their wounds. Without much to worry about in Rockaway and Broad Channel, local Democratic politicians can limit themselves to paying lip service to causes like preservation of resident toll exemptions as the MTA, sensing its opportunity, moves speedily to restore a toll that shouldn't have been there in the first place.

So what can we do now that the MTA's longer term plan is finally clear? It's a sure thing Mayor Bloomberg, whose administration has increased the number of city employees to record levels and blasted the city's budget back into the stratosphere, isn't going to push to stop this. Heck, he's even talking about putting tolls on Manhattan's bridges!

We've been lucky for years, thanks to a flush economy, but the real test for any government comes when the indicators turn down.

Is there anything we can do?

Well yes, a couple of things. First we can withdraw support from any politician out here who is less than tireless in the quest to stop this toll increase in its tracks. Second we can work to restore political competition in our communities by supporting alternative candidates. Republicans may have earned opprobrium in Washington and Albany, where they've acted like big spending Democrats and forgotten their roots, but here on Queens' southern shore, they haven't even been given a chance, leaving us with a virtual one-party system whose pols haven't gotten off their collective duff since Giuliani led a citywide Republican revival and scared the heck out of them.

And one more thing. We should boycott the damned bridge whenever we can. Obviously not everyone can, because of job or travel needs. But, given the choice, I suggest we all head east to the Five Towns when we can and see how the MTA likes running a bridge people don't want to use. It's not a perfect solution and will be inconvenient for many, but sometimes you have to take the road less traveled to get where you need to go.

Just ask our union friends how they used to do it. See you on the road to Cedarhurst.


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