NYS Thruway toll hikes approved

April 25, 2008 4:18:35 PM PDT
The cost of driving on the New York State Thruway is going up.Despite opposition from many elected officials, the Thruway Authority's board of directors on Friday approved a series of toll hikes that managers of the 641-mile superhighway say will bring in an additional $125 million annually.

The increases will start in July with the EZ-Pass system and continue for EZ-Pass and cash customers through January 2010. They come on top of a 10 percent increase enacted this year.

Thruway managers say the hikes were unavoidable because traffic volume hasn't been high enough to cover the cost of a $2.1 billion highway and bridge repair plan.

Drivers who pay cash will face a pair of 5 percent hikes, while some drivers who use the EZ-Pass will see what amounts to a 28 percent increase because of higher rates combined with lower discounts for using the electronic toll collecting system.

The actual dollar increase Thruway users will pay will depend on what they drive, how far and how they pay.

Most motorists interviewed Friday were not happy.

"I don't like it," said Ron Kuvik of Massena, while stopping at the Clarence rest area on his way to Erie, Pa. "I don't have any idea why they're doing it. We're already taxed highest in New York state and as far as I'm concerned, it's taxation without representation. No one asks the little people. It's all done in chambers."

Greg Gissendanner, of Rochester, said the toll hike comes at a bad time, with worries about a faltering economy and rising gas prices.

"It's going to hurt my pocket," he said. "Gas prices are skyrocketing. I don't like it but they charge it so we've got to pay."

The new toll structure that the board approved also differs slightly from the one proposed last November. It preserves a volume discount for some trucks as well as discounts for hybrid vehicles.

Kendra Adams, president of the New York State Motor Truck Association, said the volume discount is helpful for now, but the toll increase is still going to hurt the trucking industry in light of soaring diesel fuel prices that have topped $4.50 in most parts of the state.

"This really couldn't be happening at a worse time," she said. "The increase in tolls for truckers is going to be difficult, to say the least."

In all, the toll increases are expected to generate an additional $25 million this year, $97 million next year and $125 million each year after that, according to John Bryan, the Thruway Authority's finance chief.

Michele Walker, a motorist from Rochester who was on her way to Niagara Falls, said she can understand the need to raise tolls. The road, she says, is in good shape and it should stay that way.

"I don't notice anything too bad. If there were holes, they patched them," she said. "They have to keep it up or else your car maintenance and tire repairs will go up."

Lawmakers from throughout the state as well as Gov. David Paterson have opposed the plan, saying the Thruway Authority - which is independent of the Legislature and governor and funded mostly with toll money - should instead cut its costs.

But board members say they've been hamstrung by other costs imposed by the state for work that falls outside the bounds of the Thruway since the mid 1990s.

"We've been saddled with $1 billion worth of non-Thruway expenses," board Chairman John Buono said after voting in favor of the toll hike. "Without that, we wouldn't be having any kind of toll adjustment."

Five out of the six board members at Friday's meeting voted in favor of the toll increases.

Buffalo-area board member Jeffrey Williams cast the dissenting vote. He said he's been frustrated by the Legislature's failure to enact measures that would have helped avert a toll hike.

Chief among them is removing the state Canal Corp. - which lawmakers put under the auspices of the Thruway Authority in 1992 and Thruway managers say costs $80 million annually. The Thruway Authority's operating budget - which includes running the Thruway, canals and I-84 - is $417 million.

But Williams says there are other steps lawmakers could have taken to provide Thruway managers with more money to run their system. They include suspending the registrations of toll evaders and providing a fee to the Thruway Authority when it sells bonds on behalf of state agencies.

"It's become systematic," Williams said. "On the one hand they do this backdoor borrowing, and on the other hand they chide the authorities when they try to do the right thing."

Lawmakers continued to blast the toll hikes Friday.

Assemblyman Mark Schroeder, a Buffalo-area Democrat, said he's pushing a bill that would abolish the Thruway Authority.

His legislation would create a 15-member commission appointed by the governor and the Legislature that would be responsible for disbanding the Thruway and transferring its duties and responsibilities to other state agencies.

A budget bill that passed the Republican-led state Senate included a provision that would have required the state Department of Transportation and the Thruway Authority to devise a plan to move the Canal Corp., but it wasn't included in the version that passed the full Legislature, said Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Majority leader Joseph Bruno.