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Queens pols slam plan for East River bridge tolls

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More than 20 New York City elected officials have attacked state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s proposal to establish tolls on East River and Harlem River bridges in a last−minute rescue of the financially beleaguered MTA, calling it an assault on the middle class.

The coalitions of officials expressed their opposition to the tolls in a letter presented to Silver.

“The MTA has a serious budget gap that needs to be funded, but what’s the fairest way to fund it?” asked state Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D−Fresh Meadows). “Putting a tax on middle−class commuters who drive into the city because the MTA’s mass transit system isn’t available to them is a profound injustice.”

Silver’s plan to close the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s budget deficit, at $1.2 billion for this year, is similar to the proposal from a commission chaired by former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch and includes a payroll tax in counties served by the authority.

Silver, however, recommended last week that the bridge tolls be $2, $3 less than what the Ravitch Commission called for in December. A $2 tax would generate about $450 million in revenue annually.

Silver defended his plan in a release Monday, saying the tolls would eliminate the need for proposed service cuts in the MTA’s current budget proposal and reduce the anticipated fare hike of 23 percent.

Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith (D−St. Albans) called Monday for an audit of MTA finances before he agreed to any plan to plug the group’s budget deficit with tolls or a payroll tax. Gene Russianoff, a staff lawyer for the Straphangers Campaign, a transit rider advocacy group, criticized Smith’s proposal, saying lawmakers need to act soon to fill the authority’s deficit, and threw his weight behind the bridge tolls.

“If subway riders are paying $2 to go into Manhattan, why shouldn’t motorists?” Russianoff said in an interview Tuesday.

Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D−Jackson Heights) slammed the tolls, saying it would make Manhattan “only affordable to the wealthy,” and state Sen. Mark Weprin (D−Little Neck) called the tolls “discrimina­tory against people in Queens.”

Mark Weprin’s brother, City Councilman David Weprin (D−Hollis) also criticized Silver’s proposal, saying the city instead should reinstate a commuter tax.

The commuter tax, rolled back in 1999 and which would be levied upon people who work in the city but do not live there, would bring in about $713 million to the city, according to a report released earlier this year by the city Independent Budget Office.

“How, at a time when the city and state are facing tough fiscal times, can we justify the expense of implementing tolls?” David Weprin said.

According to the Ravitch Commission, placing tolls on the East and Harlem river crossings would cost approximately $400 million. The tolls would generate about $600 million after operating expenses, according to the Ravitch report.

Comptroller and Democratic mayoral candidate William Thompson also expressed discontent with the tolls. Thompson previously offered a plan to help close the MTA’s deficit by taxing vehicles according to weight.

“Harlem and East River tolls would burden many hardworking people who live in boroughs outside Manhattan and would drastically hurt small businesses, many of which already are struggling in this economy,” Thompson said.

Small business employees frequently cross the bridges to bring goods to and from Manhattan, Lancman said.

Councilman John Liu (D−Flushing), chairman of the Council Transportation Committee, argued the payroll tax would be “more than sufficient to plug the MTA’s operating deficit and fund much of the next capital plan.”

The payroll tax called for by the Ravitch Commission would be equal to 33 cents per $100 in payroll to be paid by all for−profit businesses, nonprofits and state agencies located in the 12−county MTA region. The Ravitch plan stated this move would bring in about $1.5 billion.

Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith (D−St. Albans) said Silver’s proposal “warrants strong considerat­ion” but “would be unacceptable if straphangers were forced to bear the burden of the reduced toll.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e−mail at agustafson@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 174.

Posted 6:32 pm, October 10, 2011
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