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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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MTA Makes It E-Z

Lost in the media coverage of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) latest bridge and tunnel fare increases was the triumphant tone the MTA has adopted when extracting more money from the public.

“MTA Bridges and Tunnels intends to introduce a new card next year that will allow customers to go to hundreds of retail locations in the region and reload their E-ZPass accounts with cash using the same process that prepaid debit card customers use to reload these cards today. This card will be linked to customers E-ZPass accounts and will permit customers to refill their accounts with cash through an existing debit card network,” an Oct. 27 MTA news release stated. A new card to streamline the distance between a driver’s pocket and the MTA’s coffers? What a great idea!

The release just reinforced the MTA’s well-earned reputation for relentless revenue collection. Indeed, the agency already gets a piece of almost every economic transaction that takes place in downstate New York.

The disclosure about the MTA’s new card came as the agency announced it would raise by 18 percent, to $6.50 per one-way trip from $5.50, the cash-only toll levied on every private-passenger vehicle using the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, Queens Midtown Tunnel, the Robert F. Kennedy (formerly the Triborough) Bridge, the Throgs Neck Bridge, and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The new rates take effect on Dec. 30, and the MTA’s release highlighted how existing E-ZPass users are getting off relatively easy, seeing only a 5 percent rate hike at these bridges and tunnels, E-Z Pass drivers are slated to pay $4.80 per trip rather than the current fare of $4.57.

Three other bridges got caught up in the MTA fare hike, too. Tolls are going up at the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge as well as the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge and the Henry Hudson Bridge, a structure connecting Manhattan to the Bronx.

The MTA’s overall public policy goal—to get drivers to migrate to the E-ZPass from cash when paying tolls—is a laudable one. I generally access the MTA via the Long Island Rail Road and New York City Transit but when I’m crossing an MTA bridge or tunnel I’m always surprised at the number of drivers sitting at the cash-only tolls, even though E-ZPass has been widely available for years.

Where the MTA loses me is when they assert these toll rate changes are expected to yield a 7.5 percent increase in revenue collected at the seven MTA bridges and two tunnels affected by the agency’s latest actions. Really, a 7.5 percent increase?

But what if the cash-toll drivers follow the MTA’s advice and move en masse in 2011 to E-ZPass? An expanded E-ZPass user base, would under that scenario, generate far fewer dollars at the MTA’s bridges and tunnels, if current traffic patterns held. Also, while some drivers will continue to pay cash, has the MTA estimated how many drivers will leave the roadways altogether in favor of mass transit? A prediction: revenues will fall far short of the projected 7.5 percent increase.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net