2011-03-04 / Front Page

Reintroduce Cross Bay Toll Rebate Program

By Howard Schwach

In a move that caught many local residents and politicians by surprise, on Wednesday, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer and U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner announced that they plan to reintroduce federal legislation protecting the residential discount programs for Broad Channel and Rockaway residents on the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge.

The federal Residential and Commuter Toll Fairness Act of 2011 provides express Congressional authorization for local governments to issue or grant transportation toll, user fee or fare discount programs based on residential status, the two legislators say.

The legislation, which was originally introduced in 2009 and passed the House by a unanimous vote, came in response to a court case challenging toll discounts in upstate New York.

Last month, a judge in Rhode Island announced he would issue a written ruling on a case that could strike down a similar toll discount program. As the number of cases continues to grow, Schumer and Weiner said the legislation is more necessary than ever to ward off similar suits that could invalidate the toll discount programs in Broad Channel and Rockaway. “Rockaway and Broad Channel residents have some of the longest, most complicated commutes in America, and without residential toll discounts, they would face the most expensive commutes as well,” said Schumer. “Unlike most of the rest of New York, residents of Broad Channel and the Rockaways often have to pay a toll to get to or from their homes and work and more. The Cross Bay Bridge serves as the main link between the Broad Channel and Rockaway communities, and local residents rely on these toll discounts to make their daily trips across the bridge affordable. By introducing this legislation, we can ensure that these fair and necessary residential discount programs will hold up in court.”

“With many Rockaway residents unfairly forced to pay the City’s only intra-borough toll every time they go to the grocery store, the least we can do is ensure that they continue to get discounts,” Weiner said. “This legislation will do just that.”

Many residents across the country are forced to pay tolls to access certain highways, bridges, rails, buses, ferries, and other transportation systems. The revenue generated from these tolls is used to support infrastructure maintenance and improvement projects that not only benefit the users of the transportation systems, but the regional and national systems as well. But certain commuters, such as those who live on islands and peninsulas, are forced to endure significant toll burdens when compared with commuters who have numerous travel options.

The Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge is the only bridge in the city that charges a toll for travel within the same borough. The bridge, which was opened in 1939 as part of a program to encourage commercial development in Jamaica Bay, connects Broad Channel and Rockaway. The Cross Bay Bridge provides the most direct route for Broad Channel residents to access schools, government offices and other necessary services in Rockaway. As a result, many of these residents make multiple trips across the bridge each day.

The Cross Bay Bridge toll costs travelers $3.25 per crossing and has steadily increased in recent years as a result of MTA budget struggles. Broad Channel and Rockaway residents are charged a discounted rate for the first two trips each day and nothing for additional trips. Without the residential toll discount program, these residents would be forced to deal with the severe financial burden of having to pay higher and more frequent tolls.

To address this inequality, and to reduce the significant financial hardship imposed on these commuters, many state and local governments have implemented programs to issue or grant discounted tolls, user fees, or fares to these residents, similar to the one that provides discounts to Broad Channel and Rockaway residents. Residents who use E-ZPass are charged $1.19 and are only charged for the first two trips each day.

In court cases across the country, however, plaintiffs are alleging that the discount fare programs are unconstitutional. Last week, a judge in Rhode Island announced he would be ruling on a class-action suit accusing the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority of violating the constitution by giving a toll discount to Rhode Island residents who cross the Pell Bridge that connects to Newport and Jamestown. Schumer originally introduced his legislation in response to Selevan v. New York Thruway Authority, a case in the Second Circuit of the US Court of Appeals, that alleges that toll discounts for New York residents living in towns bordering the New York Thruway are unconstitutional.

Schumer and Weiner noted that transportation toll discount programs that are based on residential status do not discriminate against those individuals who do not receive these discounts, but instead address actual unequal and undue financial burdens placed on residents of certain communities that have no other way of accessing those communities other than through a means that requires them to pay a toll.

The Residential and Commuter Toll Fairness Act of 2011 provides clarification of the existing authority of local governments to issue or grant transportation toll, user fee or fare discount programs based on residential status. It also provides Congressional authorization for discount programs.

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