Highway Robbery - Why Are NYC Tolls So Expensive?

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

There’s not a doubt in my mind that if Grosse Pointe, Michigan, which abuts the city limits of Detroit, put up toll booths on Jefferson Ave. charging drivers money to enter the city, there’d be accusations of discriminating against the less affluent, mostly black residents of the city of Detroit. New York City, though, gets away with charging exorbitant tolls to enter Manhattan and some of the boroughs. If you are driving a privately owned automobile or truck, or if you’re a passenger on a privately owned bus or taxicab, you will be paying or subsidizing a toll if you want to enter the ‘center of the universe’.

Of course, government owned transportation services are exempt from such tolls, but if you’re going travel into the city on your own schedule, you will have to pay for what, I guess, is a privilege.

Now I don’t have a problem with the concept of paying a toll to traverse a bridge or tunnel. Bridges and tunnels need continuous maintenance and that work has to be funded.

My home state in Michigan has one public toll road (there are some privately owned bridges here and there as well), the Mackinaw Bridge. Big Mac, as they call it here, has competed with NYC’s Verrazano Narrows Bridge that connects Staten Island to the southern tip of Long Island – a.k.a. Brooklyn – for the title of the longest suspension bridge in the world. Both structures are five mile long engineering masterpieces built in very difficult locations. Both bridges, as mentioned, need to be constantly maintained. The next coat of paint starts going on almost as soon as the last coat is finished being applied. Roadbeds must be repaved. Fatigued metal parts must be replaced. Admittedly, the number of vehicles that cross the Verrazano Bridge are orders of magnitude greater than for the link between Michigan’s two peninsulas, so some maintenance, like fixing the pavement, will undoubtedly be more expensive for the New York bridge. The Verrazano structure has two road levels, so pavement costs are doubled, but outside of that, both bridges probably require about the same level of maintenance. Pavement costs are only a fraction of the operational costs of a bridge.

It costs $4 to cross the Mackinaw Bridge in a car or light truck. Larger trucks pay $5 per axle. The Port Authority charges $16 round trip for the Verrazano Bridge (most of the other bridges and tunnels seem to have a $14 round trip toll). While the Michigan bridge charges in both directions, the NY bridge only charges people traveling to Staten Island, as the relevant authorities apparently assume most drivers will come back to Brooklyn the way they came. Most of the tolls in the NYC area, at least for crossing water, are round trip. Of course, if your route, as mine did on the first day of the New York International Auto Show preview, takes you into Manhattan and then to Staten Island, you’ll be paying tolls in both directions. The Lincoln and Holland tunnels’ tolls are $14 round trip.

Since just about everything but kosher food is more expensive in NYC, the costs of operating the Verrazano Bridge are probably greater than for the Mackinaw Bridge, but I can’t see them being double. The only reason that I can see tolls being so expensive in the NYC area is that New York and New Jersey governments use them as a source of general revenue. With so many drivers having no choice but to take bridges and tunnels to get to work, that’s quite a considerable revenue stream.

Local New Yorkers to whom I’ve raised the issue seem to believe the tolls are used to subsidize the subways here. As far as I can determine, though, the subway system is operated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Verrazano is operated by the Tri-Borough Tunnel and Bridge Authority, a different agency.

If any of our readers are familiar with how the various government agencies in the NYC area disburse their toll revenues, please educate us in the comments. From the perspective of this Michigan resident, however, it looks like the tolls are set based not on the budgetary needs of the bridges and tunnels, but rather on a philosophy of extracting the maximum amount of revenue that can be used to pay for all sorts of things not necessarily helping travelers reach their destinations.

[Photo credit: Jet Lowe, via Wikimedia Commons]

Ronnie Schreiber
Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.

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  • Dtremit Dtremit on Jun 02, 2015

    Poor comparison. You're comparing what is essentially the round trip tourist toll on the most expensive bridge in NYC to a one-way toll on a bridge that's basically in the middle of nowhere. Anyone who lives in the Northeast and has a brain has an EZPass, so let's compare those rates: Verrazano Narrows bridge, EZpass: $11.08, round trip Lincoln & Holland Tunnel, GW Bridge: $9.75 off-peak / $11.75 peak, round trip Tappan Zee bridge: $4.75 round trip And compare with the crossings in Detroit: Ambassador Bridge: $10 round trip Detroit/Windsor Tunnel: $9.25 round trip Not so different, is it?

  • Tomas De Torquematic Tomas De Torquematic on Jun 03, 2015

    People of New York! Google prices for Sydney, Melbourne. Brisbane, Australia and breathe a smug sigh of relief.

  • EBFlex At the summer property putting boats in the water, leveling boat lifts, cleaning the lots for summer, etc. Typical cabin stuff in the most beautiful place on the planet
  • Lou_BC I've I spent the past few days in what we refer to as "the lower mainland". I see Tesla's everywhere and virtually every other brand of EV. I was in downtown Vancouver along side a Rivian R1T. A Rivian R1S came off as side street and was following it. I saw one other R1S. 18% of new vehicles in BC are EV'S. It tends to match what I saw out my windshield. I only saw 2 fullsized pickups. One was a cool '91 3/4 ton regular cab. I ran across 2 Tacoma's. Not many Jeeps. There were plenty of Porches, Mercedes, and BMW's. I saw 2 Aston Martin DBX707's. It's been fun car watching other than the stress of driving in big city urban traffic. I'd rather dodge 146,000 pound 9 axle logging trucks on one lane roads.
  • IBx1 Never got the appeal of these; it looks like there was a Soviet mandate to create a car with two doors and a roof that could be configured in different ways.
  • CAMeyer Considering how many voters will be voting for Trump because they remember that gas prices were low in 2020–never mind the pandemic—this seems like a wise move.
  • The Oracle Been out on the boat on Lake James (NC) and cooking up some hella good food here with friends at the lake place.