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City Should Waive Verrazano Bridge Tolls in Wake of Sandy, Volunteers Say

By Nicholas Rizzi | December 4, 2012 5:31pm

STATEN ISLAND — Volunteers helping residents of areas on Staten Island hit hard by Hurricane Sandy are asking the city for a little help of their own — free tolls on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

Members of Occupy Sandy, a volunteer group spun-off from the Occupy Wall Street movement, started an online petition asking the city to put a three-month moratorium on the tolls for Verrazano bridge to lower the costs to volunteers paying $13 each day to cross.

“The whole goal is to allow for aid to be expeditious, to rebuild, to get family back in home with heat and electricity as quickly as possible,” said Matthew Hillyer, a volunteer with Occupy Sandy who posted the petition. “That’s being undermined by the toll. If you take the toll away you speed up the process.”

The petition went live last week and at the time of writing surpassed the original 5,000 signature goal with 5,510 signatures. The group has set a new goal of 7,500 signatures.

The group has sent the petition to the MTA, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Andrew Cuomo, Hillyer said.

With the cost of tolls at $13 — and a potential rise to $15 in March — Hillyer said that volunteers can barely afford to drive supplies, food and people over the bridge from Brooklyn to volunteer.

“Our organizers are sending car loads of supplies and volunteers every single day,” said Hillyer, a Bushwick resident who volunteers on Staten Island 4 to 5 days a week. “If we’re making round trips, we cross the bridge there and back multiple times a day.”

Occupy Sandy has an average of 2,500 volunteers in Staten Island on weekends, and 1,250 on weekdays who work out of different community hubs in New Dorp Beach, Midland Beach, South Beach, Hillyer said.

However, a lot of potential volunteers can’t make the trip out to Staten Island because of the high price of tolls, Hillyer said. Instead, they choose to volunteer on other boroughs, he said.

“Our numbers suggest that a lot of people don’t go to Staten Island because of the cost prohibitiveness,” he said.

“We want those areas to receive aid as well but not at the neglect of Staten Island,” he said.

Some of those who signed the petition also said the cost of tolls were a deterrent to volunteering on the borough.

“Would love to help in Staten Island but the tolls are to [sic] expensive for someone on a limited income,” wrote Sharron Sellick on the petition. “If the toll wasn't involved, more people would aid in recovery and SI would get back to normal much faster then the schedule is moving now.”

Others around the city also had similar ideas to the Occupy petition and have asked the MTA to simply lift the tolls for relief workers and volunteers.

At a recent public hearing on the toll hikes in Staten Island, Brooklyn Councilman Vincent Gentile said that he also wrote a letter to the MTA's Bridges and Tunnel to remove the tolls over the bridge for volunteer workers.

"I demanded that the MTA Bridges and Tunnels immediately suspend tolls on the Verrazano Bridge for relief workers," Gentile said. "Volunteer lead groups have been absolutely crucial to the recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Local relief organizations have been struggling to send their volunteers with supplies to Staten Island, because $13 adds up very quickly."

However, a spokeswoman from the MTA was that it was extremely unlikely bridge toll would be lifted for any amount of time.

“I seriously doubt this,” she said.