NYC Toll Hike May Push Commuters onto Mass Transit

New rates go into effect despite uproar from drivers and AAA

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The George Washington Bridge is seen as it crosses into New Jersey in New York. (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

Not a fun week to be a toll collector in New York City. In the wee hours of Sunday morning, a rate increase went into effect for drivers entering the city at six high-traffic crossings, including the Lincoln and Holland tunnels and the George Washington bridge. Tolls rose $1.50, to $9.50, for EZ-Pass users during peak hours and will continue to climb periodically through December of 2015, until the rate is $12.50. For drivers paying cash, the toll rose $4, to $12, and will continue to stay two bucks ahead of the EZ-Pass rate, rounded up.

The new rates come courtesy of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which announced the increase in late August. The governors of both states, who control the agency, approved the increase — and took credit for keeping it from being even higher [PDF] — and Mayor Bloomberg has supported it too. Port Authority cited "multiple unprecedented challenges" for the decision, including the deterioration of New York's tunnels and bridges as well as the rising cost of the World Trade Center, whose construction falls under the authority's authority.

That last reasoning doesn't sit well with AAA. Last Friday, just days before the scheduled increase, the auto association's New York office wrote a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood condemning the toll hike as a violation of a federal law. AAA officials believe any transportation-related user fees should go directly back into transportation costs — not "speculative real estate re-development costs" like the World Trade Center. (It should be noted that the new center is a major transit hub for the PATH commuter train.) The association even considered suing the authority to block the increase, according to the Associated Press.

For now it seems commuters will have to live with the new tolls. Some are grumbling. Some are actively seeking short-cuts into the city. And some are considering a switch to public transit. Fares for the PATH train rose as well — up a quarter to $2 — but the rate remains considerably lower than car tolls, and New Jersey Transit has announced it won't raise commuter bus fare, even though buses that cross into Manhattan will take a big hit, with tolls rising from $4 to $10.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's approval of the toll increase is particularly surprising to some observers. Last fall Christie canceled the ARC tunnel program, then the country's largest infrastructure project, which would have created loads of construction jobs and eventually given New Jersey commuters an alternate entrance into Manhattan. With that option gone, he now approves a toll increase that will primarily aid a New York City project (the World Trade Center) rather than one anchored in his own state (the ARC tunnel).

The move also seems to contradict Christie's pledge against tax increases. While the governor has refused to raise the state's gas tax — currently the nation's third-lowest, slouching at 14.5 cents per gallon — he reportedly doesn't see the Port Authority toll hike as a tax increase, since it impacts only drivers who commute into Manhattan, as opposed to all drivers. By that logic, a gas tax increase shouldn't be considered a tax increase either, despite its name, since it impacts only drivers, as opposed to all state residents. This is a difference of degree, not kind; and of potential voters.

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