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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Election-Year Politics Drive MTA Tolls

State lawmakers are allocating $7 million, and want the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to do the same, so Staten Island’s private-passenger and commercial E-ZPass users can pay less when crossing the MTA’s Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

I bring this Staten Island tale to a Nassau County audience because the governor and state legislators, when making this announcement on Feb. 6, inadvertently volunteered information they usually keep quiet. The MTA’s board, over which the governor has outsized influence, generally does what Albany’s elected officials tell them to do.

“The toll relief plan must be reviewed by the MTA Board, which is scheduled to consider the proposal at its February 26 meeting,” the gubernatorial news release stated. “If funding for the program is eliminated, the toll relief will end and Staten Island residents and commercial vehicles will pay the applicable toll rates.”

Translation: if the MTA balks at Albany’s proposal, the MTA is the villain. The MTA’s chairman, by the way, is an appointee of the governor who must be confirmed by the state Senate.

“The cost for [Staten Island] residents will now, adjusted for inflation, be lower than it was in 1972,” said state Senator Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island), in that same gubernatorial statement. “This discount program will put approximately $14 million back into the pockets of Staten Island families and businesses and I applaud Governor Cuomo for delivering this great news.”

Yup, if you live on Staten Island, have a car equipped with a private-passenger E-ZPass, and use the bridge frequently, it is a positive development. You’ll pay $5.50 per round-trip on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge while non-Staten Island residents fork over $10.66, when using an E-ZPass. Staten Island’s private-passenger E-ZPass holders already receive a significant bridge discount, paying either $6 or $6.36 per round-trip, depending on the number of times they return to Staten Island each month. There is no toll booth at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge for vehicles traveling into Brooklyn. Cars and trucks coming into Staten Island must pay a toll.

MTA board members should explain at its Feb. 26 public session that the MTA does not have $7 million for this election-year gimmick. The MTA would at least be consistent, having told a presidential panel in December 2013 that the MTA did not have the financial resources to raise wages significantly for the MTA Long Island Rail Road’s (LIRR) unionized personnel, who have been without a contract since 2010, in the absence of work rule changes. Alas, nothing of this kind will be said publicly by an MTA board member because they secured their position at the behest of a governor, a New York City mayor or a suburban county executive. Having an independent streak on the MTA board leads to being a former MTA board member.

Plus, considering New York State’s general fund disburses more than $130 billion each year, and the MTA’s annual budget is $13 billion-plus, what’s $7 million per annum to each of these entities, a rounding error? And Staten Island can always absorb the increased traffic, right? Will anyone even notice when more cars and trucks are thrown into the Staten Island Expressway’s daily mayhem?

But let the record show that, while Staten Island residents and businesses are in line for toll rate reductions, MTA customers who use the agency’s subways, bus or commuter rail lines are waiting to hear whether 2015’s ticket prices for those services will rise either four percent or 12 percent, the two numbers the MTA has floated publicly in recent months.

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge giveaway has nothing to do with implementing sound public policy. Governor Cuomo and Senator Lanza needed to boost their poll numbers on Staten Island ahead of the 2014 campaign. Each of them now has a popular issue to highlight when seeking re-election in the city’s only Republican-leaning borough, and it is being financed by those living in the other 11 downstate counties served by the MTA.

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