Michael Grimm talks on tolls, Hurricane Sandy, health-care policies

Rep. Michael Grimm has a bone to pick with The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey: Continuously increasing tolls are devastating business on Staten Island.

Grimm’s challenge: As the U.S. representative of New York’s 11th District, he is the only member of the U.S. House of Representatives whose constituents include residents of the Island.

In December, tolls at all Port Authority bridges and tunnels increased to $13 for cash and $10.25 for E-ZPass. An additional $1 increase for cash and 75-cents for E-ZPass is scheduled to go into effect in December of this year, unless a lawsuit against the increase is successful.

“One by one, we’re losing our businesses to New Jersey and elsewhere, and that trend is going to continue,” Grimm said. “You cannot afford to do business in Staten Island anymore. Taxes matter, and a toll is just another form of a tax. It’s crushing our ability to compete.”

Combined with Superstorm Sandy recovery and pending changes related to Obamacare, toll increases are severely limiting the success of Staten Island business, Grimm said. The New York Container Terminal, one of the Island’s largest employers, is at 52 percent capacity from where it was a year ago, in large part because of the extra monetary burden on travel.

“If that trend continues, we’re going to lose them,” Grimm said.

Because the federal government created the Port Authority, Congress has ultimate oversight. But Grimm said it’s hard to convince Congress to get involved because the issue of high tolls is a local one. Still, he’s working hard to gain support with other representatives to press the issue of forcing the Port Authority to, at the very least, give discounts to business traffic.

“I think I finally have broken through and I have some of my colleagues’ support,” Grimm said. “I want to be able to shed light on the Port Authority’s ineptitude, how they have not been stewards of their books, and how poorly they’ve been run over the last two decades that has cost Staten Islanders dearly.

“I’m going to continue to wage this war, and eventually, I’m going to win it. I’m going to shed some light on the Port Authority and just how devastating their policies…are on this economy.”

While tolls have been Grimm’s first priority since he took office, the ongoing recovery from Superstorm Sandy is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Grimm said that, when he is back in his home district, he spends the majority of his time dealing with recovery issues from business owners and residents alike.

“I’m working very closely with [City Councilman James] Oddo to come up with solutions to make these neighborhoods better and stronger than they even were before,” Grimm said.

New York City’s final plan for how to use its portion of federal Sandy recovery funds is still in the final approval stages, but what is known is that a large chunk of the funds will go toward infrastructure improvements at hospitals, tunnels and subways, while the other chunk — what Grimm is most concerned about — will be earmarked for direct relief to individuals and small businesses impacted by the storm.

“Obviously, small businesses have gotten crushed,” Grimm said.

There will be several programs that will provide business grants, and not just loans, to help companies that lost their buildings or inventory, and are still struggling to re-open their doors. There will also be programs for homeowners to re-build, repair or even re-locate, based on the amount of damage to the homes.

Grimm said the government hopes the recovery plan can start having a real effect in the community by May.

“I know it’s never going to be quick enough for those who were displaced, but when you’re talking about $51 billion…we have to make sure that we are stewards of that money,” he said.

“That’s a tremendous amount of taxpayer money that’s being entrusted, and we have to make sure that it’s being spent wisely and going to those who need it most.”

The city has already utilized a Community Development Block Grant program that has seen $325 million allocated specifically to businesses, and more is on the horizon.

Looking forward, one of Grimm’s major concerns is the effect that changes to the nation’s health-care system will have on employees. While much of the attention is focused on the effect that Obamacare will have on businesses, Grimm believes the employees will be the true losers. Instead of offering health care to employees, Grimm says that many small businesses will dump its workers into the federal health-care exchange.

“They just simply can’t afford to be a viable business and offer health care to every single employee that they have,” he said. “I really, truly feel that the president’s health-care plan is going to severely hurt our small businesses. It’s going to take employees’ options away, and ultimately that hurts our economy.”

Grimm believes the way to fix the health-care system is not to insure every person, which will ultimately cause more problems than it will fix, but rather to find ways to lower the cost of health care.

He said he’s talked to dozens of doctors who told him they wouldn’t be accepting Medicare anymore, because it wasn’t worth it to their business.

But despite all these challenges to the local economy, Grimm does see bright times ahead.

“As difficult as it seems right now, I think we’re a few years away…from our best decade. We’re going to become energy independent, in spite of ourselves. As we can bring a little bit of certainty back into the marketplace…I think we can get some overall tax reform. I think we can bring some certainty to the banking industry. Failure is not an option for the U.S.”