Monday, December 15, 2008

Residents, Pols Protest ;Unfair and Unjust; Cross Bay Bridge Toll by Lee Landor - Queens Chronicle

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Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, a handful of politicians and hundreds of Broad Channel and Rockaway residents are demanding the removal of the only intra-borough toll in the city.

Photo caption: Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, City Councilman Joseph Addabbo Jr., C.B. 14 Chairwoman Dolores Orr and District Leader Frank Gulluscio. Photo: Lee Landor

The toll plaza that sits at the northern end of the Cross Bay Bridge has been the cause of much contention between the two communities and the city for decades.

Residents began protesting the toll in 1974 and finally won in 1998 when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the city-owned bridge, agreed to implement a rebate program.

With the program, Broad Channel and Rockaway drivers with E-ZPasses are charged $1.03 (discounted from $2.50 for non-residents) each time they cross the bridge, and the money is returned to them in a rebate.

Now that the MTA is facing a serious fiscal crisis in its 2009 budget, it is contemplating abrogating the rebate program, which would save the agency $3.6 million a year.

Just the utterance of the MTA’s proposal sent Broad Channel and Rockaway drivers scrambling to the offices of their elected officials and local leaders, who organized a protest on Tuesday.

Joining Marshall in her call to remove the toll were Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, City Councilman Joseph Addabbo Jr., several district leaders and a number of community board members.

According to Marshall, the toll will “hamper the ongoing economic development of the entire Rockaway Peninsula. It will make the current housing boom less attractive to prospective buyers.”

The toll will also discourage Rockaway residents from driving into the rest of the borough to shop, according to Pheffer. Why would they pay a toll to get to Queens Center Mall, for example, when they could drive into Five Towns in Nassau County for free?

Pheffer called on the MTA to “eliminate the toll. It’s wrong. It’s unfair and unjust.”

Addabbo expressed concern about what the MTA would do with the $3.6 million it would save by ending the rebate program. “How many of us are really certain that the MTA can handle money?” he asked.

It’s time the agency learned that it cannot fix its financial problems on the backs of its customers, Addabbo added. He suggested that before it does anything, the MTA should look in the mirror, recognize the place from which its fiscal troubles stem and revamp its entire financial department.

Community Board 14 District Manager Jonathan Gaska said there is no question that the Cross Bay Bridge toll should not even exist. But since it does, the least the MTA can do is continue the rebate program.

Broad Channel residents send their children to school in the Rockaways, Gaska noted. It’s where they go for grocery and other shopping, to eat out, to see movies, to visit the post office and even to get gas.

Should they need to visit their local precinct, which is located on the peninsula, or pick up their kids from school or send certified mail, Broad Channel residents, who share a ZIP code with a Rockaway neighborhood, would have to pay a toll. Likewise, Rockaway residents who want to get to any other part of the borough have to pay a toll.

“It’s just ridiculous,” Marshall said. “Does the MTA charge Manhattan residents a toll to travel into Midtown or SoHo?”

Lifelong Rockaway resident Glenn DiResto, a candidate in the 32nd Council District special election, summed up the problem with the toll: it’s divisive. “The toll isolates the whole community,” he said.

Rockaway resident Dan Tubridy echoed the sentiment, saying, “This toll is a wall. It’s a wall that ... separates the city of New York.” It is time, he said, to “tear that wall down.”

In addition to the protest, the community held a demonstration Wednesday, sending six busloads of residents to speak out at an MTA meeting in Manhattan.