NEW YORK-- The free ride is over for the Police and Fire departments and emergency medical providers - they'll have to start paying for tolls when crossing MTA-owned bridges and tunnels, after the MTA's board narrowly approved the cost-saving measure during a meeting yesterday.
The vehicles will continue to use their E-ZPass tags, but the change will allow the MTA to keep track of the number of trips made and send the city a bill to recover the tolls.
All told, the cash-strapped agency expects to reap about $10 million a year in additional revenue.
The decision will have no impact whatsoever on emergency vehicles or their speed in responding to emergencies. But it will be a major hit for the affected agencies, which were told this week to cut their budgets 2.5 percent this fiscal year and 5 percent next year, due to the city's worsening financial outlook tied to the failures on Wall Street.
Following yesterday's vote, MTA executive director and CEO Elliot G. Sander said he wasn't "happy about having to do this," and that he sympathized with the city's position. But, he said, "It's something we need to do given the current state of the MTA's finances."
Assemblyman Lou Tobacco (R-South Shore), a member of the MTA Capital Program Review Board, blasted the authority for what he called an "idiotic move," and pushed for more creative ways to cut costs instead of sticking taxpayers with the burden.
"Instead of enacting a policy that will weaken the security of New York City to make a few dollars, the MTA should be looking at ways to cut their bloated budget, like eliminating the fringe benefits of MTA board members and reducing the amount of spending on wasteful projects."
The new tolling policy could backfire, creating more hostility between the city and the MTA than the generated revenue is worth, said Mark Page, a board member appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"This is an underhanded gimmick to poach $10 million more from city taxpayers in addition to the more than $1 billion subsidy we provide annually to the MTA," said Bloomberg spokesman Marc LaVorgna. "The MTA should get their own house in order before they start charging police cars, fire trucks and ambulances tolls while they are protecting the public."
After it was revealed earlier this year that some wealthy MTA board members were given multiple free E-ZPass tags as a perk for their unpaid service, some members returned their tags, while other were allowed to keep them for use while on official board business only.
Meanwhile, MTA spokeswoman Cathy Sweeney said, the authority won't revoke about 2,800 free tags given to employees and retirees of MTA Bridges & Tunnels as part of contract agreements.
The measure was approved by a vote of 7 to 6.
In his first full board meeting since his appointment last month to fill the seat of the late Frank Powers, Livingston attorney Allen Cappelli explained his yes vote, stressing he was "convinced no emergency services are going to be denied. This is essentially an accounting measure."
"We do have an obligation to try to find ways to keep this system solvent and keep revenues up," he said.
Responding to concerns that the rule change will create a hardship for private volunteer ambulance companies, Cappelli suggested the board work with such groups to help them find reimbursement.
The E-ZPass tags could start being charged in as little as six weeks.
Maura Yates covers transportation news for the Advance. She may be reached at email@example.com.