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Residents, pols criticize toll on Cross Bay bridge

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A successful campaign...

By Daniel Massey

Gov. George Pataki is up for re-election again and for Rockaway residents and their elected officials that means it is time to revive the fight to get rid of the $3.50 round-trip toll on the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge.

A successful campaign during Pataki’s 1998 bid for governor led the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to exempt residents of Broad Channel and the Rockaways from the $1.75 toll in each direction. The bridge connects Broad Channel with the Rockaway peninsula and is the city’s only intraborough toll bridge.

“It’s no different than putting a toll in the middle of Queens Boulevard,” said Jo Ann Shapiro, chief of staff for state Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D-Ozone Park). “It is the same police precinct, the same school district, the same post office.”

With development springing up all over the Rockaways, including the recent groundbreaking at the 117-acre Averne-by-the-Sea residential community, elected officials and community leaders said the toll is the one roadblock to an economic boom for the area.

“Speaking as a businessman in the Rockaways since 1973, I’ve had people from the mainland say we’d love to come to your place, but we hate paying the $3.50 toll to come,” said Dan Tubridy, a restaurant owner who has protested against the toll since 1974.

The bridge, which was reconstructed in 1970 and carries 20,000 vehicles per day across a six-lane, 3,000-foot span, has had a toll since 1939, when it was a four-lane drawbridge that cost 15 cents to cross.

Opponents of the toll say it unfairly taxes businesses in the Rockaways, which must pay more for deliveries. More importantly, they say, the added expense limits their customer base because people would rather eat and shop elsewhere than pay the $3.50.

“People in Howard Beach have a real aversion to this toll,” said Tubridy, of one nearby community shut off from the Rockaways by the levy.

“Anything that cuts down on business growth and job development is something we need to take a firm look at,” said Councilman James Sanders, Jr. (D-Laurelton), who is chairman of the City Council’s Economic Development committee.

Sanders said he planned to request a study from the MTA with data showing why they “hold on so religiously” to the Cross Bay toll.

Lisa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the MTA, which operates the bridge, said “by state law we have to charge the toll.” The bond act that financed the bridge requires the toll, but Pheffer said the MTA got around the law in passing the residents’ exemption and could do so again.

To abide by the law that maintains a toll must be collected, the MTA charges Rockaway and Broad Channel residents the $1.75, but the money is then credited back to their EZPass accounts.

“It’s amazing how creative they became when they wanted to,” said Shapiro. “When they want to do it, they can get it done.”

Tubridy hopes the MTA’s building at the bridge can be transformed into a community center if the crossing fee is eliminated. He said the bridge is actually losing money and that the toll remains in place only because of the MTA’s “institutional mind of not letting go.”

Shapiro said the bridge “basically sustains itself,” but that “it’s certainly not generating any money.” Pheffer, she said, is in the process of setting up a meeting with the MTA and other interested parties to discuss getting rid of the toll.

Until a solution can be worked out, Councilman Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) suggested the city and state stop collecting during the off season from Labor Day to Memorial Day on a trial basis.

“The Rockaways has turned the corner. It’s seen housing developments come up, businesses thriving and new ones created,” he said. “To continue in that direction things need to happen and one of those things is the removal of that toll.”

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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