WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Union laborers and commuters battled over the Port Authority's proposed fare and toll hikes at a public hearing held at the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal Tuesday night.
Union members in favor of the hikes outnumbered opponents to the increase and wore bright orange shirts with the phrase “Port Authority = Jobs,” claiming the increase will help create 167,000 jobs over the next 10 years.
"I see a fair plan, one that spreads the toll among users of the infrastructure we need,” said Anthony Williamson, a laborer and union organizer for Laborers International Union of North America, Local 79. “I see a plan to create tens of thousands of solid middle-class jobs.”
“We either pay now, and get it done, or pay later and suffer decreased service and poor road conditions,” said Edward Pichardo, a union organizer for Laborers’ Local 78. “It makes sense to initiate the repairs and replacements at time when less drivers are on the roads.”
But dozens of residents who came out to protest the plan said the increase would place an undue burden on commuters.
“I’m against these hikes,” Barbara Connolly, 48, said. “I’m tired of the middle and working classes paying for everything.”
Connolly, who lives in Inwood, said she works two jobs as a teacher and at a library and spent $1,500 in tolls last year when commuting from New York to New Jersey.
“I’m not against jobs,” Connolly said, noting that her grandfather helped to the build the George Washington Bridge, and that she supported unions. “But to link this increase to jobs is cheap."
Alex Roman, 33, of New Jersey, also opposed the toll increases, saying a move to increase tolls would leave commuters stuck with ever-increasing costs.
“The cost for me to drive across a bridge or tunnel doesn’t cost the authority $14,” Roman, a frequent commuter into Manhattan, said.
The Port Authority has proposed increasing the cost of bridge and tunnel crossings as well as the fare on the PATH train. Peak tolls on bridges and tunnels for users of the E-ZPass would increase from $8 to $12 dollars, with an additional $2 hike in 2014, bumping the cost to $14. One-way PATH train fare would increase a dollar to $2.75.
The authority said that the recession, increased costs for post 9/11 security and World Trade Center construction costs, and a need for improvements to facilities, drove the decision to propose a toll and fare increase. Port Authority officials say the agency receives no tax money and relies on tolls.
The authority has estimated it will raise $720 million a year through the hikes with an additional $290 million earned each year after 2014, when they plan to raise tolls again.
While the Port Authority is promising 167,000 jobs as part of its $33 billion capital improvement plan that includes infrastructure maintenance and equipment replacement, local politicians are weighing the costs to their constituents and the local economy.
“Working class people would be hurt,” City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez told DNAinfo, saying that the current proposed toll increases are too high. “We hope they will get a compromise."
“Many of my constituents go to work in New Jersey,” Rodriguez said, adding that many work for wages between $9 and $11 an hour. “We have to be worrying about the impact that will have.”
He also expressed concern about the impact toll increases will have on the cost of products that come into New York.
City Councilman Robert Jackson called the proposed hikes “exorbitant.”
“The proposed fare hikes come at a time when people cannot afford it,” Jackson said. “They feel the pinch of every fare increase.”
“Charging $12 on E-ZPass, and $15 to cross the George Washington Bridge is outrageous,” he said.
Jackson called for alternatives to tolls and airport fees, such as shipping by rail as alternative, and urged Port Authority officials to come up with a better plan.