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NEW YORK CITY-Calling it the lesser of two evils, New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver defended a legislative compromise proposal whereby cars would be charged a $2 toll when crossing the East and Harlem Rivers on currently toll-free bridges into Manhattan. Sheldon talked up the compromise this past Friday afternoon in Lower Manhattan, touting the plan as a savior of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which has said it intends to impose fare hikes and drastic service cuts unless the Legislature acts soon.

The $2 toll, half the amount originally proposed by former MTA chair Richard Ravitch’s commission, is part of an emergency plan to shore up the transit agency’s finances, which face a $1.4-billion budget gap. That deficit is expected to grow to $3 billion by 2012.

In addition to the tolls, the Ravitch plan calls for a one-third of 1% payroll tax on all employees in every county served by the transit authority. Reportedly, after initial opposition to the higher bridge tolls, the Legislature and Governor now appear near a solution.

In late January, GlobeSt.com reported that MTA CEO Elliot Sander was warning of “draconian” measures by March if the legislature didn’t act. The nightmare budget includes cuts to service, fare increases of 25% to 30% and the sacrificing of essential capital maintenance and improvement. During a speech to the New York Building Congress, Sander said then that it was truly crunch time for the MTA.

On Friday, while speaking to reporters at a press conference in Lower Manhattan inaugurating the Alliance for Downtown New York’s new jitney bus service around the neighborhood, Silver called the MTA the lifeblood of the downstate region. Because of this, he says, “it’s fair to call upon all the stakeholders, including the stakeholders of business, and the residents, the riders and the people who use cars, to keep the MTA fares affordable. Clearly, between column A–service cuts and fare increases–and column B—revenues–it is column B and revenues that is the logical choice.”

Mass transit notwithstanding, over one million cars enter into the streets of Manhattan each day. In 2003, the Regional Plan Association of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut said that more than 800,000 cars enter the island south of 60th Street into the business districts of Midtown and Lower Manhattan. Studies show that around 80% of drivers in those cars ride alone.

On the other hand, in 2007, the New York City subway averaged over 5.3 million passengers each weekday, according to the New York City Transit bus and ridership statistics. An additional 2.3 million took the bus every day.

Silver said that keeping the magnitude of current service was essential, and that in the end, maintaining the vastness of the service would in the long run benefit those individuals who do choose to use their cars. “When you raise fares, you encourage people to take their cars,” he said. “When you cut service, you encourage people to take their cars; that in turn increases traffic.”

When asked about free shuttles to subway lines for individuals living in outlying areas of the outer boroughs that many argue are underserved by mass transit, Silver tells GlobeSt.com there might be some assistance in the form of shuttle to trains in the future. However, he says, financing could present a problem.

Nonetheless, Silver tells GlobeSt.com that New Yorkers clearly face increasingly challenged economic situations all around, including transportation. He acknowledges that a tax hike and imposing tolls on toll-free bridges are not options that “people want to embrace. But this is an option that I believe is the lesser of two evils. We need affordable mass transit service. We need more service, not less service, and the way we get there is the lesser of two evils: the toll over the bridges, the tax, etc.”

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