By Eric Yun
For the past twelve years, residents of Broad Channel and Rockaway were able to drive over the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge for free thanks to the Resident Rebate Program. For the past week, they have lived with the reality that they also must pay the toll as a result of MTA cost-cutting measures.
The new plan, enacted by the MTA to help close its $800 million budget deficit, now charges $1.13 per trip for qualified residents who use EZ-Pass and $1.54 for drivers using a token. Normal fare for the bridge is $2.75. In a concession from the MTA, the first two trips across the bridge in a given day are charged, but subsequent trips will be free.
"The decision to modify the Rockaway Rebate program was made by the full MTA Board in April after public hearings were held," an MTA Bridges and Tunnels spokeswoman said. "This action was taken to help MTA close an $800 million budget deficit, and was part of a package that included difficult service cuts to public mass transit, as well."
Residents in Broad Channel often depend on the bridge for everyday tasks. As a small neighborhood, Broad Channel is heavily dependent on Rockaway. The closest hospital and police station are both located across the bridge.
“It's deeply disappointing,” said Jonathan Gaska, District Manager of Community Board 14, “It's going to have a negative ef- fect on economic development.” Gaska also said he believes it's “unconstitutional to charge a tax to travel within their own community.”
The MTA argued that inter-borough travel fares are not unusual. "Keep in mind that residents in any NYC borough traveling within that same borough pay subway and bus fares to go from one neighborhood to another," the MTA spokeswoman said.
Local politicians have been vocal in their opposition to the toll. Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D-Ozone Park) said, “I really believe the toll is unfair for everyone.”
Calling it another “expense in difficult times,” Pheffer feared the end of the rebate program would stunt economic development in the communities. Residents may be less willing to drive across the bridge and spend money on entertainment and other non-essential services, which are critical to the economy.
“The MTA is moving in the wrong direction,” said Senator Joe Addabbo (D-Howard Beach). He said the savings the MTA would receive is inconsequential compared to their massive deficit. “I've been advocating to make it a free bridge, at least in Queens,” he said.
Addabbo said he talked to concerned residents who are afraid to open up businesses in Rockaway. They fear people will not come to their store if they have to pay a toll just to get to the area.
“I am outraged by the MTA’s most recent attempt to balance their books on the backs of Broad Channel and Rockaway residents,” said Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park). “The MTA must get serious about its own inefficiencies and poor accounting practices before they reach into the pockets of people just trying to travel around their own community.”
The elected officials all promised to continue to fight MTA's new provisions on the Cross Bay Bridge. “There are many ways we're looking to eliminate the toll. It's a fight we're going to keep on fighting,” Pheffer said.
Residents in the following zip codes are eligible for the $1.13 toll fare: 11691, 11692, 11693, 11694, 11695 and 11697. The modified rates went into effect last Friday, July 23. In 2009, 3.6 million trips were taken by residents participating in the rebate program, which only applies to passenger vehi- cles.