Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Poisoned Toll House Cookies

It certainly looks as if it's gonna be a difficult sell for Malcolm Smith to get his conference to accept tolling of the East River and Harlem bridges, even as Anthony Weiner proposes just charging out-of-towners. As the NY Post reports: "Mayoral hopeful Rep. Anthony Weiner wants the MTA's financial crisis to take the biggest toll on out-of-towners. Weiner said cameras could take pictures of license plates crossing the now free East and Harlem river bridges, and bill drivers who aren't registered in the city $4.15 each way. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith tried to rally support for a plan that would bill anyone who crosses the East River bridges $5 or $4.15 for E-ZPass holders. Drivers crossing the Harlem River bridges would be billed $2."

One of the toll's little understood impacts is the hurting it would put on the city's small businesses. Just recently, for instance, Assemblyman Espaillat brought MTA guru Richard Ravitch up to meet with our friend Paul Gagliardi, the owner of Flair Beverage on 207th Street. Espaillat wanted Ravitch to gauge how the toll plan would impact Flair's cash and carry beer business-a business that relies on bodegas coming from the Bronx across 207th Street to shop.

Gagliardi estimated that he could lose up to 35% of his business because the cash-strapped bodegueros make frequent daily trips across the span to replenish their stock of beer and soda; and his neighboring supermarkets could also be impacted, he told Ravitch, because of the additional expense of tolls. What the transit vultures never realize-and we saw the same thing with the mayor's congestion tax-is that the city is one seamless piece; and small business relies on its easy access to Manhattan markets to sustain wholesale and contracting operations housed in the outer boroughs.

So, while five state senators are balking at the toll plan because of its unfair impact on their constituents, there is also the recognition by the three amigos that the toll will hurt the predominately Hispanic and other minority small retail and wholesale businesses for whom the tolls would be another nail in the proverbial recession-built coffin; something that the NY Daily News editorial board loses sight of when it points fingers at the hold outs.

Here's the News at its most strident, and less thoughtful: "Smith, Kruger, Skelos and all the other anti-toll lawmakers will bear responsibility for hammering millions of daily riders because they feared the wrath of a comparative handful of bridge motorists. Among the guilty will also be Sens. Ruben Diaz and Pedro Espada of the Bronx. All have railed against tolls and/or taxes or, like Smith, postured this way or that - without offering any credible alternative. Ideas that have been floated are unworkable or lunacy."

Why the hasty doom and gloom? Well, because of the MTA's self imposed legislative doomsday deadline-one that the News accepts without question. No one-least of all Kruger, Diaz and Espada, thinks that there isn't the need for a plan-and perhaps an overhaul of the agency's governance; but that doesn't mean that tolls are the answer, or that Shelly Silver's about face is the manifestation of policy sagacity.

New Yorkers are hurting, and the legislature needs to find a way to fund a transit system that the previous leadership drove deeply into debt: "The authority's biggest problem is the massive amounts of debt it took on years ago, in the Pataki era. Politicos, including then-Executive Director Marc Shaw, forced that debt to bloat knowing full well that it would blow up after they had left."

So let's come up with the plan that does the least harm-and one that avoids either tolls or huge fare hikes. Mismanagement of transit should not find its remedy in the pockets of cash poor New York residents and small businesses.