Monday, April 12, 2010

Broad Channel Journal - Broad Channel Loses Free Trips on Cross Bay Bridge by Fernanda Sanchez -

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Ending free trips on the Cross Bay Bridge for Broad Channel residents will have an impact. Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

ZIP code 11693 in southeastern Queens spans two communities divided by water and a half-mile-long toll bridge. One of them is Broad Channel, a narrow island in Jamaica Bay with cottages on stilts and a quaint business district that has a nail salon, a bar, a pizzeria, a deli and little else.

Dan Mundy Jr., the president of the Broad Channel Civic Association, says that “around here, people live on a budget, so every dollar counts.” Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

If a car is vandalized in Broad Channel, the owner must cross the toll bridge linking the island to the Rockaway peninsula in order to file a police report. The closest pharmacy, hospital, gas station, grocery store and bank are also on the other side of the bridge, and so is the rectory for the local parish, which was merged in 2008 with a parish in the Rockaways.

Broad Channel’s only Roman Catholic church has no resident priest and a limited Mass schedule. Broad Channel has a post office, located inside a variety store, but it does not offer post office boxes or sell money orders. It had a laundromat, but it burned down on Wednesday.

For its roughly 3,000 residents, daily trips to the peninsula over the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge are something of a necessity. The toll is $2.75 for drivers without an E-ZPass. But for the past 12 years, residents of Broad Channel and the Rockaways have been allowed to cross it without charge.

But their free ride is about to end.

Sometime in July — the exact date has not yet been set — the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will end a program that instantly credits their E-ZPass accounts with the toll imposed every time they cross the bridge. It is part of an effort to close the transit agency’s $800 million budget gap, which also includes eliminating subway lines, reducing subway service and scrapping some bus routes.

Under the new rules, residents of Broad Channel and the Rockaways who have an E-ZPass will no longer be credited the $1.13 toll they pay each time they cross the Cross Bay Bridge, although they will not be charged if they make more than two crossings a day. The transit agency estimates that ending the program will bring in an additional $3.5 million a year. It is part of a package of cuts and other money-saving measures totaling about $93 million.

To many people in Broad Channel, a largely working-class enclave, it means paying to get to the doctor’s office, go to work, pick up a child at school or attend a meeting of the local community board. It is not uncommon for families to have lived there for generations; many of the residents are civil servants.

“It makes no sense to have to take out-of-pocket money to do a job I’m not paid for,” said Dan Mundy, 72, who volunteers on five committees at Community Board 14, which meets in Far Rockaway. “Am I upset? Yes, I’m upset. I’m also angry.”

He is not the only one. An online petition against eliminating the toll refund gathered 1,000 signatures in four days and drew some nasty comments, including one comparing the transportation authority’s board members to terrorists. At a public hearing in Queens last month, protesters chanted “no more tolls” as the board’s chairman, Jay H. Walder, who grew up in the Rockaways, took his seat.

Phone calls have been pouring into the office of Assemblywoman Audrey I. Pheffer in Rockaway Beach. And among business owners in Broad Channel, there is a palpable sense of dread.

People who live in the Rockaways are “not going to want to pay a toll to buy a dozen bagels,” said Al Pisani, one of the owners of a bagel shop that is about to open just off the toll plaza on Cross Bay Boulevard, Broad Channel’s main roadway.

The Cross Bay bridge opened in 1939, and drivers have paid to traverse it ever since. (To this day, old-timers reminisce about how it cost just 10 cents into the 1970s.)

A spokeswoman for the transportation agency, Joyce Mulvaney, said the agency was obligated by the state to charge tolls at the bridges and tunnels it operates and then to use the money to maintain the crossings and subsidize mass transit services.

Only the Legislature can abolish the toll for everyone, and Ms. Pheffer, a Democrat whose district includes Broad Channel and the Rockaways, has introduced many bills hoping to do just that over the years, with no success.

Broad Channel has a wildlife refuge and 20-some residential blocks of mostly single-family home. It is so narrow that the water is visible on both sides from Cross Bay Boulevard. The A train stops there, but the ride to the financial district often takes 90 minutes. Someone who uses the bridge to get to work will now have to pay nearly $600 a year.

“A hundred bucks may not seem like much for some people, but around here, people live on a budget, so every dollar counts,” said Mr. Mundy’s son, Dan Mundy Jr., 46, a firefighter who lives in the house that belonged to his grandfather and is the president of the Broad Channel Civic Association.

Anthony Causi, 28, who moved to Broad Channel four years ago and owns an insurance agency there, put it this way: “We’re already paying more for everything, so I think of this as nothing but an unfair tax.”

There is another crossing on the northern end of Broad Channel, the Joseph P. Addabbo Memorial Bridge, which connects the island to the Howard Beach section of Queens. It is operated by the city’s Department of Transportation, is at least a mile longer than the Cross Bay bridge and is free.