Thruway travels to cost more

The New York State Thruway board on Friday ignored the unanimous advice of New York’s political lead

The New York State Thruway board on Friday ignored the unanimous advice of New York’s political leaders and approved a series of toll increases that will take effect over the next 20 months.

E-Z Pass rates will go up in June, and then again in January 2009 and 2010, when cash tolls go up in two 5 percent increases. Cash tolls went up 10 percent this past January, and Thruway officials said the E-Z Pass adjustment will have that program consistently offering a 5 percent discount from the cash payments.

Much steeper discounts are available in a commuter E-Z Pass program, but it too will see increases in 2009 and 2010.

The Thruway board did slightly modify its proposed toll increases, keeping in place an E-Z Pass discount program for some New York-based truckers, and expanding the discount for hybrid vehicles meeting fuel efficiency and emission standards.

Thruway leaders including Chairman John Buono and Executive Director Michael Fleischer defended the toll increases as necessary to preserve its 2,430 miles of pavement and 807 bridges, 80 percent of which were built when the road was, in the 1950s. The toll increases, they said, are needed to fund the capital program to keep that infrastructure in good condition.

Gov. David Paterson and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli denounced the toll increases the day before the board acted. On Friday, DiNapoli spokeswoman Jennifer Cunningham said more audits on the Authority will be forthcoming, and one already is under way. One was completed earlier this year, also. She said the Thruway board should have waited until the new audits were done and more cost-saving measures were identified.

Fleischer said the Authority has responded to the comptroller’s first audit, and some of the actions, such as pursuing E-Z Pass deadbeats, were already under way before the audit recommended them. On Friday, the board approved a contract with a company to collect those debts. But it is open to new ideas, he said.

Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, R-Schenectady, issued a statement Friday denouncing the toll increases and pushing his conference’s bill to prevent the Authority from raising tolls without legislative approval.

“We can’t just go out and do the political thing,” Buono said after the meeting. “No one wants to do this, but there’s a reality out there. If you hit a pothole at 60 mph, you’re going to be dead.”

Kendra Adams, acting president of the state Motor Truck Association, said the trucking industry cannot afford these increases, especially given the high cost of gas. She said it wants the Canal Corp. separated from the Thruway Authority so that motorists’ tolls no longer pay $80 million per year for upkeep of the canal. Buono has said he favors that separation, and DiNapoli said it should be considered. However, the governor is trying to cut state costs, not increase them, and no one has suggested any way of paying for the canal apart from tapping state funds if it were to be separated from the Thruway Authority.

Asked if truckers might stay off the highway because of the toll increases, John Bryan, the Authority’s chief financial officer, said it has been determined that any such diversion would be minimal. High fuel prices, he said, may help keep truckers on the Thruway rather than traveling less-direct routes where stop-and-go traffic burns more fuel.

Adams said some local truckers may seek alternative routes, although it helps that they will still get the E-Z Pass discount. While strongly opposing the toll increases, she said the Authority does do a good job keeping the road and bridges in shape.

By the time the increases are phased in, they are supposed to bring in an additional $125 million in annual revenue.

Thruway leaders said they have been economizing, eliminating more than 450 jobs since 1995, and planning to eliminate 50 more through attrition by 2011. Their budget is up 3.2 percent this year, they said, and they plan to hold to that rate of increase over the next few years.

They also note their budget increase is significantly less than the state’s budget increase.

One board member, Jeffrey Williams, who is a strong advocate of separating the Canal Corp. from the Authority, voted against the toll increases.

Also at the meeting, the board designated Erin Crotty as vice chair, No. 2 to Buono. She is a former environmental conservation commissioner, and, like most board members, an appointee of former Gov. George Pataki, a Republican. Paterson and DiNapoli are Democrats. The former vice chair recently retired from the board.

The Associated Press reported that most drivers 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.”

Paterson’s statement said: “The Thruway toll increase is unfair to drivers who are being asked to tighten their belts every day in these troubled economic times. I have asked my agencies for across-the-board cuts of 3.35 percent in their operations. I am also undertaking a comprehensive review of the budget to further reduce spending. For the Authority to increase tolls now, and also plan 5 percent increases in the following two years without a commitment to take every possible step to reduce spending, runs against the state’s goal of fiscal restraint in the face of a national economic downturn.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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