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Tolls rear their ugly heads-Bleak economic climate revives call to charge bridge fees

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Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, talks are again promoting tolls for borough motorists crossing East River bridges.

The idea, last bandied about as a possibility under Mayor Bloomberg’s failed congestion pricing plan, found a new white knight in Gov. David Paterson.

Paterson told television reporters last week that putting tolls on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and 59th Street (Queens) bridges may be one of the “drastic” remedies needed to keep subway, bus and rail fares from going through the roof.

Paterson’s comments came as the commission that he appointed after congestion pricing failed to offset rising transit costs is set to deliver its findings on December 5.

It has been widely reported that the Ravitch Commission’s proposals – named for and headed by former MTA Chair Richard Ravitch – will include tolls on the bridges.

The news also comes as the MTA announced that it will need to close a $1.2 billion budget gap for Fiscal Year 2009.

MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan said the agency board will look at ways to close the gap, including possibly raising fares and raising tolls on existing crossings such as the Verrazano Bridge and Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.

In regard to tolls on the East River bridges, Donovan said, “We’re going to wait for the Ravitch Commission to make their proposal and will discuss other options for funding the MTA after they complete their work.”

While Bloomberg told reporters last week he could support charging tolls on free East River crossings if the cash was spent on improving mass transit combined with expense cuts, a spokesperson backed off his words to this newspaper.

“The mayor has no comment until the Ravitch Commission completes their work,” said Bloomberg spokesperson Marc Lavorgna.

But Borough President Marty Markowitz blasted any such proposal as amounting to an extra tax on Brooklyn residents.

“First of all, as I have always maintained, East River tolls are discriminatory, impractical, and impose an unfair ‘tax’ on the outer boroughs – especially Brooklyn,” said Markowitz.

“Three of the four un-tolled bridges – the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg – are in Brooklyn, and because some parts of our borough have limited or no access to mass transit, drivers, including those who use their vehicles for small businesses, have no choice but to use these spans,” he added.

Markowitz said that even with advances in E-ZPass technology, tolls will worsen traffic backups for communities such as Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg, DUMBO, and the ‘Brownstone Belt’ of Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn Heights and Boerum Hill, which already suffer.

Markowitz said he understands the need to close the city’s growing budget gap, but placing the burden unfairly on the backs of hard-working Brooklynites is not one of them, he maintained.

“Let’s do it the right way, and bring back a commuter tax, with proceeds to fund mass transit projects in the five boroughs,” he said.

Markowitz also suggested that a modest gas tax used to fund public transit by region would be a much more equitable funding strategy than tolls.

“If Governor Paterson is indeed considering increasing the state’s gas tax, this increase should be used to fund public transit –period,” said Markowitz.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, who is running for mayor next year, also blasted the idea.

“The ghost of tolling the East River bridges has popped up again. This idea should stay dead,” Weiner said. “It’s a regressive tax on middle-class and working New Yorkers.”

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