Tolling the Van Wyck Expressway in New York City’s Queens borough would generate a reliable revenue stream for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and help defray its $32 billion of debt, said a transportation expert.

“I wouldn’t say the system is starved, but it’s unfunded. We have enormous debt on the system and it needs more funds,” said New York University professor Mitchell Moss.

The Van Wyck, part of Interstate 678, essentially connects the two airports in Queens, LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International. The MTA operates New York City’s subway and regional commuter rail systems, seven toll bridges and two tunnels.

Tolling interstate highways require the federal government’s approval.

“About 80% of people who go to LaGuardia are driving there,” Moss said at NYU’s Henry Hart Rice urban policy forum on Tuesday night. Pushback from such travelers is unlikely, according to Moss. “People are already spending $500 for a ticket and $10 for a pillow.”

The MTA is facing a court challenge to a significant revenue source, its payroll mobility tax. The authority and New York state are appealing a ruling by a state Supreme Court judge in Long Island’s Nassau County that declared the tax, which the state implemented in 2009, unconstitutional.

Moody’s Investors Service said in March that should the MTA lose its appeal, it would review its rating for the authority’s transportation revenue bonds for possible downgrade. The MTA, which expects to win the tax case on appeal based on four similar successful legal challenges, can keep collecting the tax for now. The agency is budgeting for $1.5 billion in receipts from the tax in 2012, rising to nearly $1.8 billion by 2016.

The MTA’s debt, meanwhile, could rise to $40 billion by 2016. Moody’s rates the transportation revenue bonds A2, while Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s rate them A.

“Where funding sources come from and how much comes from those funding sources is an element that is controlled by the governor, the state legislature and others, because we have federal partners,” MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast said after last week’s board of directors meeting.

“I don’t have a favorite or a target or a specific funding stream. There needs to be a dialogue to identify sufficient revenues to have the subsidies in place so we can run the system. But we also need to do what we can do to reduce the cost structure, because if we can reduce the cost structure as far down as it possibly can be, it will be less revenue subsidy we would need from others,” Prendergast added.

Moss, meanwhile, said tolling is a viable option. “There’s nothing wrong with changing the way of financing driving because the gas tax is out of steam,” he added. “In Florida, they toll everything.”

But Moss opposes tolling East River bridges into Manhattan, which some transportation advocates favor and which Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed to no avail. “You don’t have to toll into Manhattan. That’s antiquated thinking,” he said. “You have congestion on Route 1 [in Connecticut], in New Jersey, on the Merritt Parkway and the Connecticut Turnpike. Suburban congestion is everywhere. People who go out to buy a bottle of milk run into it.”

Alternate transportation modes such as ferries and bicycles are increasingly popular, according to Moss, who expects bike-sharing to be a hot-button issue in this year’s mayoral campaign, especially in the outer boroughs, where some residents might find the trend disruptive.

“Cyclists are a smaller group. They’re easier to organize,” he said. “They’re like the dairy farmers upstate. Touch them and they squeal. Subway riders are more passive and disjointed.”

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