By Joni Williams
Besides its appearance in the iconic movie Saturday Night Fever and serving as New York’s longest suspension bridge, the Verrazano Bridge connecting Staten Island and Brooklyn is infamous for charging what has been deemed the nation’s most expensive toll. Yet local residents there pay less for a round trip across the double-decker, multi-lane bridge than those here for a round trip across the two-lane Mid-Bay Bridge.
That is, unless it’s crossed 32 times in a month. That’s when the Mid-Bay’s version of a frequent flyer program kicks in, slashing the four dollar cash rate in half and the SunPass rate of three dollars by a third. But this two-dollar toll exceeds 50 cents per mile, which is considered expensive by national standards.
To put it in perspective, at this rate, traveling the entire 493-mile Florida Turnpike from central to south Florida would cost nearly $250. Fortunately, it actually costs less than one-tenth as much.
This is because turnpike tolls are set using the CPI, with the index serving to determine affordability based on personal income versus cost of living. The Mid-Bay Bridge, on the other hand, sets its tolls according to its debt versus projected number of vehicle crossings.
Though the projections are sometimes off, it’s the bridge’s ballooning debt that baffles—and irks—area residents the most, jumping from its original $83 million to $285 million in 2015. Despite the burgeoning debt, nearly $90 million was spent building a bypass road, Spence Parkway. It also commands a hefty toll—$1.50 by SunPass and two dollars by tag.
The bridge’s most recent toll hikes were said to be due to a tangled web of refinancing, along with lower-than-projected vehicle crossings. Yet interest rates have been low since the bridge’s 1993 completion. And just how many more vehicles could be expected to squeeze onto a two-lane bridge that’s already often snarled during peak tourist season?
Obviously, costs need to be trimmed, efficiency improved and vehicle crossings increased. First, ditch the staffed tollbooths constructed before the state implemented tolling by license plate. This would eliminate staffing costs and greatly expedite vehicles moving on and off the bridge.
And forget counting the number of crossings. Take a cue from the Verrazano Bridge and reduce fares based on affordability and addresses. The tolls for Staten Island residents enrolled in New York’s EZ Pass pay $5.50 instead of $11.52 per round trip. This is less than one-third the pay-by-mail rate of $17.A comparable rate for the Mid-Bay would be around $1.50 or slightly less.
Of course, the bridge needs to start generating more income. And with only two lanes that are too-often jam-packed during peak season, the best time to increase traffic is in the long stretch of off-season. Right now, the outrageously high toll prevents most local residents from making a quick trip to a shopping center or restaurant or even taking a part time job a couple days a week. This would be a boon for businesses looking for winter customers and employees year round.
Last but certainly not least, if the bridge were utilized to capacity year round, fares for all could be reduced. Why keep gouging tourists when neighboring Panama City Beach has a plethora of spacious new toll-free roadways open or on the way?
Who then will be left to pay the high toll of the Mid-Bay Bridge’s many blunders?
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