STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Drivers might wonder how things could get worse on the Staten Island Expressway (SIE), the frequent scene of nightmarish traffic jams that hurt commuters, businesses and residents just looking to get from here to there.
How about tolls along the roadway?
It's in the realm of possibility.
Democratic President Barack Obama's four-year, $302 billion transportation plan, recently sent to Congress, includes a proposal that would loosen regulations governing the ability of the states to put tolls on federal interstates within their borders.
For Staten Island, that would mean I-278, otherwise known as the SIE.
States are currently barred from tolling federal interstates except if the money is used to add lanes or otherwise increase capacity, or if the highways had tolls dating back to before the federal interstate highway program was launched in 1956.
The Obama plan would also let states toll interstates to pay for repair or replacement of the highways.
Rep. Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island/Brooklyn) said he'll be "watching closely" as Congress takes up Obama's proposal "and will make perfectly clear how crippling more tolls would be for the hard-working families I proudly represent."
He said Islanders already face the highest tolls and longest commutes in the country.
"Now the president may be giving the green light for even more tolls?" he said. "Simply put, commuters have been burdened with boosting revenue for far too long, and they just can't afford to keep footing the bill."
The state Department of Transportation had no comment on the proposal.
The idea was also a non-starter with borough officials who serve on the state Assembly Transportation Committee.
"No more tolls on Staten Island," said Assemblyman Michael Cusick (D-Mid-Island). "That would be unacceptable."
He said if the state did look to implement the proposal, there would have to be a "significant" economic impact study of the effect of the tolls on borough residents and businesses.
"Staten Island is the perfect example of unfair tolls," said Cusick.
Assemblyman Joe Borelli (R-South Shore) said any tolling of the SIE would not be workable.
With either the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey or the Metropolitan Transportation Authority likely being the entity in charge of any tolls on the SIE, he said it wouldn't be feasible to toll a "six-mile road in between two tolled bridges."
That aside, Borelli said, "it's essentially a non-starter. There would be opposition like nowhere else in the country here on Staten Island."
Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis (R-East Shore/Brooklyn) said she opposes the proposal, and said it would set a "dangerous precedent" by giving an already "bloated government" yet another way to generate revenue, akin to bus-lane cameras and speed cameras.
"We've seen what happens when the state controls tolls," she said. "And government is notorious for saying that toll money will be used for maintenance and then using it for something else."
Obama is looking to start a national debate on how to repair and replace the nation's aging infrastructure while accommodating the needs of a growing population.
Under his plan, the states would also be allowed to introduce variable tolling, tolls that change according to the time of day or traffic conditions, in a bid to encourage more drivers to carpool or use public transit in an effort to relieve congestion.
Action is urgently needed because the federal Highway Trust Fund is expected to run dry by late August, said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
Lawmakers in both parties have been reluctant to raise the 18.4 cent a gallon federal gasoline and 24.4 cent diesel taxes, the trust fund's main source of revenue. The last time they were raised was 1993.