BY JAMES FARRELL
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to introduce cashless tolling on all MTA-operated bridges promised to reduce traffic congestion. But so far, the plan has done just the opposite, Whitestone residents say.
Work to install cashless tolling on the Throgs Neck and Whitestone bridges began in April, and the ongoing construction has had far-reaching consequences on the traffic flow in Whitestone and beyond.
Alfredo Centola, the president of the We Love Whitestone Civic Association, said that on one night it took him two-and-a-half hours to commute from Long Island City to Whitestone—a trip that normally takes 25 minutes.
While the longer commutes are frustrating, the larger problem, he explained, is that Whitestone has seen an influx of drivers trying to avoid the bridges on alternative routes, creating havoc along Whitestone’s residential streets.
“They’re coming into the community and they’re locking streets down because no one is stopping at stop signs, no one is stopping at red lights in certain areas,” he said. “It’s just a constant flow of traffic where the actual residents can’t get in and out of their driveways; they can’t get in and out of their houses.”
In recent weeks, the We Love Whitestone Facebook page has been inundated with angry messages that are accompanied by pictures of sprawling traffic. Videos shared by We Love Whitestone Vice President Robert Trombley on the blog Queens Crap show a traffic buildup at the intersection of 14th Avenue and 144th Place. Cars creep out hesitantly into an intersection blocked by buses, trucks and other cars trying to squeeze onto the entrance to the Whitestone Expressway. Traffic stretches down every street.
“No one directing traffic,” Trombley says in the video. “It is a total mess.”
On May 25, Assemblymen Edward Braunstein (D-Bayside) and Michael Simanowitz (D-Flushing) called on the MTA to address the problems and cited poor planning as an underlying cause.
“The MTA should have anticipated that commencing the construction of cashless tolling at the Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges at the same time would result in significant traffic problems,” Braunstein said.
And Simanowitz expressed concerns about the effects of traffic on emergency service vehicles.
“Beyond the disruption created for our neighbors in Whitestone, residents of both boroughs who rely on emergency services are endangered,” he said. “It is crucial that the city and MTA immediately coordinate on a plan to ensure safe passage and traffic relief for our first responders.”
According to the MTA, cashless tolling on both bridges will be operational in the fall. The agency argued that work-zone locations on the two bridges are on opposite directions and are closely coordinated in order to avoid conflicts. Additionally, the agency has made some alterations to the work zones in order to alleviate congestion.
“These locations will benefit greatly from upcoming cashless tolling because customers won’t have to slow or stop at toll booths,” said MTA spokesman Christopher McKniff. “This is exactly one of the reasons why Governor Cuomo accelerated the conversion to cashless tolling.”
Additionally, Joyce Mulvaney of the MTA’s Bridges and Tunnels sent an email to Centola, who posted it on the We Love Whitestone page. She admitted that the construction was a challenge, cited a “longstanding practice” of communicating with emergency vehicles in order to expedite travel, and explained that the work zones have been tapered off to help add additional lanes. She also mentioned the summer weather and cheaper gas prices as potential reasons for increased traffic volumes in recent weeks—explanations that did not go over well with We Love Whitestone.
“It’s the coldest May on record and she blames the warm weather,” Centola said. “It’s a rambling [response] that takes no responsibility, no accountability and doesn’t give any answers.”
Braunstein and Simanowitz have also requested additional officers to help manage traffic.
In the meantime, officers from the 109th Precinct have been taking up traffic controls at busy areas.
“We know you’re frustrated … we’re trying to help!” read a post on the 109th Precinct’s Facebook page, accompanied by a photo of officers at the 144th Place intersection.