By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Saying that there should be “fairness and rational in the toll system,” Republican mayoral hopeful John Catsimatidis came to Brooklyn on Monday to call for a freeze on the tolls on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
Catsimatidis, a billionaire supermarket mogul who hopes to win the GOP primary for mayor, stood at the entrance to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Bay Ridge to make his point. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge toll has gone up 400 percent since the bridge opened in 1964, he said. What was once a 50 cent toll is now an eye-popping $15.00, or soon will be when the new toll rates officially go into effect on March 1.
“How do they say it in New York? Give me a break!” Catsimatidis said. “A 400 percent increase doesn’t make common sense,” he said.
The toll increases, like those on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, are “taxing the lifeblood out of people who live and work in the outer boroughs like Brooklyn and Staten Island by forcing them to subsidize the rest of the system,” Catsimatidis said,
If the Metropolitan Transportation Authority needs a toll hike, then those increases should never go up more than the rate of inflation, according to Catsimatidis.
In addition to holding the line on bridge and tunnel tolls, the mayoral hopeful said the MTA shouldn’t be allowed to borrow money so easily. He called for a referendum on the ballot to let voters decide if the MTA should be permitted to raise its debt ceiling. Under current law, the state legislature decides if the MTA will be allowed to raise the debt limit. Catsimatidis said that decision should be on the hands of voters.
The MTA’s financial plan for 2013-2016 calls for biennial fare and toll increases of 7.5 percent, Catsimatidis said. The plan takes on an additional $3 billion in debt this year and an additional $2 billion more in debt in 2014, he said.
Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis (R-C-Bay Ridge-Staten Island), who endorsed Catsimatidis’s bid for mayor, joined him at the press conference. “John has the right approach,” she said.
Malliotakis said she is particularly concerned about the burden being shared in an equitable manner. She charged that the MTA uses the excessive bridge tolls to fund capital projects, some of which are not necessary. “In 2011, the MTA made a profit of $251 million from the Verrazano Bridge at the expense of my constituents. Let’s be responsible. Let’s look at the capital projects we need,” she said.
“We need to find a more equitable plan so that the burden of the MTA’s fiscal woes does not fall on the shoulders of Staten Island and Brooklyn residents,” she said.
Joe Lhota, the former MTA chairman, is also running in the Republican Party primary for mayor. But Catsimatidis refused to blast his political rival over the toll increases. “I’m not here to go after a competitor,” he said. “I’m just here to criticize the system,” he added.
A mayor’s job is to fight on behalf of the public, Catsimatidis said. “The mayor has to where his size 12 shoes and put his foot down,” he said. “Voters are interested in who is going to defend them,” he said.
Catisimatidis, a Greek-born businessman, is the president, chairman, and CEO of Red Apple Group as well as the Gristedes chain of supermarkets.
He said he is prepared to spend between $10 million and $20 million of his own money on his mayoral campaign.