Staten Island lawmakers divided on toll discount strategy

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Seeking to highlight bipartisan opposition to Port Authority toll hikes, Rep. Michael Grimm asked fellow lawmakers here to sign a letter calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to come to Staten Island to see first-hand the negative impact the increases will have on residents and businesses.

But the borough's three Democrats serving in Albany all declined to sign -- with Assemblyman Michael Cusick suggesting Grimm's invite should have gone to Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie instead.

"I don't think the Jersey representatives on the P.A. understand what a burden this is for us," said Cusick. "We need to get the governor of New Jersey on board."

Tolls are set by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.




In the letter to Cuomo, Grimm and the Island's Republican lawmakers, along with Councilwoman Debi Rose -- the only Democrat to sign on -- said new tolls would have a "direct impact" on residents and a "chilling effect" on businesses, blunting economic growth.

"Already the toll increase has halted the proposed expansion of the Staten Island Container Port due to the additional costs of transporting goods to Staten Island imposed by this toll increase on commercial vehicles," they wrote. "The SICP employs over 500 people on Staten Island, which we could lose to New Jersey, along with their tax revenue, due to the added cost of this toll increase."

But Cusick (D-Mid-Island), state Sen. Diane Savino (D-North Shore/Brooklyn) and Borough President James Molinaro -- who said he "could not" sign the letter even though he understood the sentiment -- said Cuomo was well aware of the impact.

"Believe me, the governor is working on getting relief for Staten Island," said Molinaro, a Conservative, who endorsed Democrat Cuomo last year. "I speak to them (Cuomo's top aides) every day. If I signed the letter they would say, 'What, is Jimmy grandstanding?' They can do a letter if they want because they are not working on it every day like I am."

Added Molinaro: "I would say that we are close to resolving the situation for residential relief. I would say we are there (in agreement) for relief for frequent commercial vehicles. The Container Port is a whole different animal. We are working on that. I believe by later this month we will have something in place."

Molinaro declined to provide specifics.

A spokesman for the governor did not respond to a request for comment.

Cusick and Ms. Savino said they are in constant contact with the governor's office, too.

"The letter is nothing more than grandstanding," said Ms. Savino. "It seemed a little unnecessary to call the governor out. He knows the impact. I am trying to be an honest broker with him. Why would I want to antagonize him?"

"We are all on the same page here," said Cusick. "There was no political calculation in not signing it. I think it is great he (Grimm) wants to weigh in on the issue. I applaud every effort."

Assemblyman Matthew Titone (D-North Shore) was unavailable for comment, but a spokesman said "he is in complete agreement" with Cusick and Ms. Savino.

All of that notwithstanding, Grimm said Island lawmakers have had a history of "coming together" on local issues of mutual concern in the areas of transportation, education and health care, adding, "I hope this is not the beginning of a partisan divide."

In their letter to Cuomo, Grimm and the others said: "A simple 10-mile trip from Elizabeth, N.J. (at the foot of the Goethals Bridge) to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn (at the foot of the Verrazano Bridge) now costs $25 in cash ... In 2015, this will become $28, and that's without pricing in a possible increase on the Verrazano."

Grimm told the Advance he envisioned a meeting with Cuomo would include a sit-down in Borough Hall with all the electeds followed by a tour of the Container Terminal.

In addition to Ms. Rose, those signing Grimm's letter were: Councilman James Oddo (R-Mid-Island); Councilman Vincent Ignizio (R-South Shore); state Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-South Shore); Assemblyman Lou Tobacco (R-South Shore), and Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis (R-East Shore/Brooklyn).

Earlier this week, Grimm and Ms. Malliotakis filed an amicus brief in support of a motion for a preliminary injunction submitted by the American Automobile Association against the toll increases.

Yesterday, Grimm met with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to discuss local transit concerns.