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Bridge and Tunnel Traffic Plunge Takes a Toll on MTA Budget

The Henry Hudson Bridge connecting northern Manhattan with The Bronx.
The Henry Hudson Bridge connecting northern Manhattan with The Bronx.
Photo: Mihai_Andritoiu/Shutterstock

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The number of vehicles crossing the MTA’s bridges and tunnels in the last full week of March sank 63%, compared to the same period in 2019, according to data obtained by THE CITY.

The huge dropoff on the seven bridges and two tunnels — whose revenues traditionally boost the MTA’s finances and mass transit operations — came after Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered all non-essential businesses to close on March 22. The fall nearly doubled the plunge from the previous week.

The approximately $2.1 billion in annual revenue from the crossings accounts for 12% of the MTA’s $17 billion annual budget. With subway and bus ridership also in freefall, the massive decrease in tolls collected adds to the regional transportation network’s dire financial outlook.

“Any loss of revenue for the MTA is too much,” said Rachael Fauss, a senior research analyst with Reinvent Albany, a state budget watchdog group. “This is further proof that COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on all the MTA’s sources of revenue and toll revenue is not immune to it.”

Bob Foran, the MTA’s chief financial officer, said at the agency’s March 25 board meeting that the combined collapse of farebox and toll revenue have occurred “at an accelerating rate.” The current level of ridership and traffic loss, over a full fiscal year, could mean a $6.5 billion revenue loss, he noted.

“We’ve planned for disruptions in the past, but never on this scale or scope,” MTA Chair Patrick Foye said at the time.

Foye added that the decrease in revenue from taxes that are earmarked for the MTA will also hurt, and that to survive the coronavirus crisis the agency will need significantly more than nearly $4 billion in federal emergency relief apparently on tap.

“Under these extreme conditions, it’s clear the federal rescue package will only go so far,” Ben Fried, of the advocacy organization TransitCenter, told THE CITY. “The MTA will quickly need more emergency assistance.”

Commutes Cut in Half

The Henry Hudson Bridge saw the largest decline in the number of tolled traffic charges among all the crossings, with a 77% drop from March 22-28, according to MTA data. It costs $7 each way in tolls by mail to cross the span linking Upper Manhattan and the Riverdale section of The Bronx. The EZ-Pass fee for New Yorkers is $2.80 each way.

The largest single-day drop came at the Hugh Carey Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, which carried 86% fewer vehicles on March 28, compared to the same date in 2019. A trip through the tunnel costs $9.50 if you pay by mail or $6.12 for drivers with E-Z Pass.

Overall, the largest daily drop of 74% happened last Saturday versus March 28, 2019, which was a Thursday.

Dr. Richard Barnett, a critical care physician on Long Island, said he sees the difference while driving daily across the Throgs Neck Bridge. MTA data shows vehicle crossings fell nearly 60% on the bridge connecting the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx with Bayside, Queens.

Barnett estimated that the once-standard 40-minute commute between his home in Pelham, Westchester County, and his hospital in Manhasset, Nassau County, now takes about 21 minutes.

“It is huge. From 1985 to the present, I’ve never seen traffic as light as this except maybe on an early Sunday morning,” he said. “It’s not even Sunday morning traffic at this point.”

The smallest two-week dropoff at an MTA crossing was on the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge. The span between Broad Channel, Queens and the Rockaway peninsula — sections of the city that are home to many firefighters, police officers and other first responders — had a 26% reduction in traffic from March 15 to 21, followed by a 48% decrease the next week.

“These losses mean the MTA will have to make very tough financial decisions in the future,” Fauss said.

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