45 percent truck toll hike proposed on Thruway

August 15, 2012 4:52:54 AM PDT
The state Thruway Authority's proposal for what it calls a "modest" 45 percent increase in truck tolls faces angry New Yorkers this week in often little noticed summer hearings while a national TV ad blitz tries to sell a business-friendly "new New York."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week he is trying to find a way to reduce the toll increase proposed by the Thruway Authority controlled by his appointees. But Cuomo defends the need for an increase to keep the Thruway Authority fiscally sound as it reports double-digit increases in maintenance costs partly from tropical storm damage and increases in health care costs.

"The Thruway Authority has to be financially capable," Cuomo said in an interview Friday on public radio's "Capitol Connection." He said the authority created to operate the statewide system decades ago must be able to meet its debt payments from capital borrowing. Compared to other states, Cuomo said, truck tolls "are not that high."

The toll for a three-axle truck traveling from Buffalo to New York City is about $88. That could increase to $127. In June, the Standard & Poor's rating agency said "aggressive" toll increases for truckers and eventually all drivers may be needed, even though a multi-year phase in of toll increases for car drivers ended in 2010.

"Businesses are rightfully fuming," a recent Syracuse Post-Standard editorial says. "The timing of the toll increase couldn't be worse. The economic recovery is fragile. Gas prices are rising again. And it flies in the face of the state's new business-friendly attitude."

The editorial cites a Central New York retail fixture and major employer, Byrne Dairy, which estimates the toll would cost it $198,500 more a year.

Public hearings are scheduled for Thursday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Buffalo-Erie Public Library in Buffalo; from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday in the Hilton Hotel in East Syracuse; and from 10 a.m. to noon at the Hilton Garden Inn in Newburgh in a rare Saturday hearing. A detailed regulation to enact the toll increase was published in June that includes the hearings for August, a notoriously poor time to attract attendance.

"You have to ask, 'Why are they holding hearings?'" said Brian Sampson of the Unshackle Upstate coalition of private businesses that supported Cuomo's 2010 campaign. He noted summer hearings are notoriously poorly attended and Saturday hearings are rare.

"Are you holding them because you care what people think or just because the law requires it?" Sampson said.

Sampson disputes the Cuomo administration's claim that the truck tolls will be raised to make them comparable to tolls in other states, saying that other states are catching up to New York.

Assembly Republican leader Brian Kolb is pushing Facebook and Twitter campaigns to stop the toll increase and drum up attendance at the hearings. The toll hike will "hurt trucking businesses, drive up prices for consumers and send a message that New York isn't open for business," Kolb said.

The proposal comes as he says Cuomo is also trying to get the Thruway Authority to reduce his administration's proposal to nearly triple the toll on the Tappan Zee Bridge to pay for Cuomo's proposed $5.2 billion replacement project. The proposed toll increases come as actor Robert De Niro and musicians Alicia Keys and Jay-Z proclaim in TV ads that New York is once again "open for business."

"I don't buy that past administrations are to blame," said E.J. McMahon of the fiscally conservative Manhattan Institute. "Those are reflections of policy ... All the bills are coming due for an era of significant borrowing."

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