New York

MTA: Cuomo’s New Toll Booths Costing Straphangers Millions

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Governor Andrew Cuomo’s push to quickly replace bridge and tunnel toll booths with cashless tolls is costing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority hundreds of millions of dollars, and the agency is paying for it in part by reducing the amount of money going to the MTA’s trains, buses and subways.

Cuomo decreed in October that the MTA will accelerate the rollout of cashless tolls, already in effect on the Henry Hudson Bridge, to all crossings by the end of next year. The $500 million project is being squeezed into the $2.9 billion bridge-and-tunnel capital program through “efficiencies” in existing contracts, including non-competitive contract expansions for construction and engineering firms.

The very concept of having surplus toll revenue help pay for transit forms the very foundation of the MTA, which was created in 1968 by merging the bridge and tunnel authority controlled by Robert Moses with the city’s bus and subway system.

In addition to the $500 million installation cost, the cashless toll program will cost an additional $149 million to operate over the next four years, the MTA says, including “bill processing, image reviews, violation enforcement, and legal activities.”

Because of cashless tolls, next year’s MTA Bridges and Tunnels budget has an additional $26.3 million in non-labor costs over this year, increasing to a total $279.4 million, Mildred Chua, the division’s chief financial officer told the MTA board’s bridges and tunnels committee on Monday.

This will impact how much money goes to support transit, Chua said, coming in $6 million lower than the previous $998 million estimate in July, before the governor’s announcement. The gap would be even larger if not for projected increases in car and truck traffic.

Those projected traffic increases, however, are never a sure thing. The latest numbers show a decrease of 200,000 bridge and tunnel crossings compared to last year, down to 26 million in October. The MTA attributes the drop to construction at the RFK Bridge Manhattan ramps and at the Hugh L. Carey and Queens Midtown tunnels, with customers likely using free city-owned bridges instead.

The MTA risks further decreases to bridge and tunnel revenue, since the cashless toll program relies on the agency’s ability to get people without E-ZPass to pay by mail. To address this, the authority is improving communication with the DMV to suspend the licenses of toll cheats.

Ultimately, a $6 million change in a $1 billion fund shows it’s easy enough for the MTA to wash down even big projects, like cashless tolls, without crippling core functions. But this type of after-the-fact budgeting to accommodate the governor’s demands — a few million here, a few million there at the expense of transit — sets a bad precedent. It also bigfoots the five-year capital program process, in which the MTA plans major spending decisions.

Bending to the governor’s wishes, the MTA board approved the 2017 budget and four-year financial plan this morning, including the reduction in transit support due to cashless tolls.

Cashless tolls will go live on the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel on January 4, MTA Bridges and Tunnels President Don Spero said Monday, followed by the Queens Midtown Tunnel on January 10. Dates for the bridges have not yet been announced.

The cost of a MetroCard is expected to increase from $2.75 to $3.00 in March.

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