Published by the Staten Island Advance: Monday, November 14, 2011, 8:31 AM
by Tom Wrobleski
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Borough lawmakers are looking to open a new front in the battle against the ramped-up tolls on the Port Authority's three bridges here, a bid that is being thrown down like a gauntlet to the Legislature and to Govs. Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie.
State Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island) and Assemblyman Michael Cusick (D-Mid-Island) have sponsored legislation that would limit the cost of tolls levied by the agency to $2.27.
That's right: Just $2.27 to cross the Outerbridge Crossing and the Goethals and Bayonne Bridges instead of the new $12 fee. Tolls would also come down for truckers, who now pay $78 per trip to cross.
The toll figure in the Lanza-Cusick bill represents how much the Senate Finance Committee believes it actually costs the Port Authority to maintain and operate the spans.
That should be the only measure used when deciding tolls, Lanza said.
"Who came up with the notion that as long as we have a bridge, we might as well stick you up to cross it?" said Lanza. "We should have to pay only for the cost of the bridge."
Lanza said it's "immoral" for the bi-state agency to use toll money to support the PATH train and other transit systems that don't benefit Staten Islanders.
Not to mention the billions going to the World Trade Center rebuilding.
"We don't have a rail system," he said. "Why should we support it? Staten Islanders should not be subsidizing anything else, especially things that are so far removed."
The lawmakers said that the Port Authority raked in $260 million in revenues from the three bridges last year. It spent $1 billion in total interstate transportation expenditures, yet it reinvested only $20 million in the borough's transportation infrastructure.
With nobody able to recall a time when tolls were actually lowered, no one need tell Lanza that getting the bill passed and signed by Cuomo looks like a political impossibility.
But he said that that doesn't mean it shouldn't be tried.
"It's not an easy task," Lanza said. "We're trying to throw as many things against the wall as possible. We have to send a message that we are not going to quit."
Lanza pointed to continuing stories in the Advance about the toll hikes, as well as efforts he and other lawmakers have made to battle them or soften the blow.
"It's not in the realm of impossibility," he said. "We shouldn't quit every time we're confronted with something difficult."
He also issued a challenge to Cuomo, Christie and to his fellow New York lawmakers.
"We want to see who says that we should pay more to cross the bridge than it costs to maintain it," Lanza said. "Let them come forward. Let them say that they would not support this."
Cusick said the bill is aimed at "letting the P.A. know that we are not going to be their cash cow because we're a captive audience with all the bridges. We want accountability."
He also cited a bill he sponsored mandating that the Port Authority do an economic impact statement every time it wants to raise tolls. The measure passed the lower house in 2006.
"The goal is to decrease the toll burden on the Island any way we can," Cusick said.
But Lanza said that a big part of the problem is that the P.A., like other authorities, was "designed not to be accountable, and now doesn't want to be accountable."
He said he is relying on Senate Finance numbers with regard to bridge maintenance costs because he couldn't get the figures from the agency itself.
"They are not being cooperative," Lanza said. "They just don't respond. We write letters. We call. They don't feel like they have to respond. They've lost their sense of reality. They feel like they've got a free pass."
It was much the same argument that Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis (R-East Shore/Brooklyn) made when she tried to get information out of the P.A. regarding its real estate holdings.
In another bid to bring the P.A. to heel, Lanza has teamed with New Jersey lawmakers on a bill that would revamp the authority and force it to be more accountable to lawmakers on both sides of the Hudson River.
"My message to my colleagues in government is, you can fix it," he said. "Put your vote out there."
P.A. spokesman Steve Coleman said that the authority continues to work on bringing resident and trucker discounts to borough bridges.
He had no comment on charges that the authority has been uncooperative with Island lawmakers.