Driving in metropolitan New York is a challenge. Traffic pops up anywhere, anytime. Potholes and maniacal motorists abound. The unpredictability is maddening.
But no more maddening than the injustices intentionally inflicted on drivers, especially those from Long Island. We're talking about the tolls on the city's bridges and tunnels -- an unfair and illogical system that punishes some drivers by forcing them to pay through the nose while giving others a literal free pass.
Using the Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges between Queens and the Bronx costs plenty, for example, as does the Verrazano from Brooklyn to Staten Island. But you can cross four East River bridges into Manhattan for free.
The bridges with high tolls lead to highways and destinations north and south, not into Manhattan; the free bridges lead to and contribute to congested city streets. The tolled bridges -- Bronx-to-Queens, Brooklyn-to-Staten Island -- are in areas that lack mass transportation, which means we punish people who must use their cars. The free bridges -- Brooklyn-to-Manhattan, primarily -- are in areas with multiple subway lines, but we entice those people to make traffic worse. That makes no sense.
It's time to hit the reset button.
Consider an intriguing proposal developed by a former New York City traffic commissioner, Sam Schwartz, and the Move NY coalition. It calls for tolls, for example at the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges -- $5.54 each way with E-ZPass, same as the Queens Midtown and Brooklyn Battery tunnels -- and reducing the tolls on the Throgs Neck, Whitestone and Verrazano. For example, the Throgs Neck with E-ZPass would go from $5.54 to $3.04. Prices reflect increases coming March 22.
The plan also would charge drivers who cross 60th Street in Manhattan in either direction -- whether on local streets, the FDR Drive or West Side Highway. Tolls would be collected by E-ZPass or photos of license plates.
The goal: Reduce Manhattan's awful congestion, get more people on public transit and eliminate bridge shopping, where drivers exit highways and jam local streets that lead to free bridges. Among the absurdities: thousands of truckers driving between Long Island and New Jersey clog the Manhattan Bridge and lower Manhattan to avoid up to $80 in tolls on faster routes over the Verrazano and Throgs Neck bridges.
The plan's promises include:
-- Reduced traffic and travel times in Manhattan and its surroundings, and safer roads.
-- An added $1.5 billion annually to invest in infrastructure -- 25 percent for roads and bridges, 75 percent for transit. Bonded, that could close the $15-billion gap in the MTA's five-year capital plan. But the money must be used only for transportation. No poaching.
-- Better maintenance of buses, subways and commuter rail, and modernization -- such as communications-based train control systems for quicker and more reliable subway service.
-- 30,000 new jobs, primarily related to building and maintaining road, bridge and mass transit infrastructure.
Objections will be fierce. Similar plans have been derailed. Many city residents say they shouldn't have to pay to drive from one part of the city to another. But they already do so between some boroughs and on all public transportation. Others are scornful of so-called congestion-pricing schemes. But London, Stockholm and Singapore have successfully employed versions of that. Why couldn't we do the same?
The plan isn't perfect. No proposal this complex is. But its chassis is sound.
Look under its hood. Pull it apart. Test its assumptions and predictions. Tinker with it. Add time-of-day pricing, if you'd like. Free some money for suburban roads. Use a small piece to help fund the new Tappan Zee Bridge.
But don't reject it out of hand, as State Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) seems to have done. No new taxes or fees, he says. It's not that simple. The plan would mean new fees for some, but reduced fees for others, many of them Long Islanders. Skelos and his colleagues should remember that.
If we were building a transportation and tolling system from scratch, we'd never create what we have today.
So drive a change. It's time.