ALBANY — The state Thruway Authority is in the final weeks of its conversion to cashless tolling, and is projecting that its toll collectors will step out of their booths for the last time next month.
The Authority on Monday launched an information campaign to urge motorists who now pay cash to switch to E-ZPass toll payments. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday it will hold public hearings on a 30% toll surcharge to be imposed on motorists who opt instead to be billed by mail.
The cashless toll initiative is designed to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion by getting drivers on and off the Thruway without stopping or, in some locations, without even slowing down.
From the point when Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced the plan as a highlight in his January 2018 State of the State address, the target for rollout has always been simply “by the end of 2020.” The $355 million project is now nearing completion: The last overhead gantry towers were completed in August, scanning equipment installation on those gantries is in its final stages, and testing is already underway.
Thruway Authority Executive Director Matthew Driscoll recently said the go-live date would be sometime in November.
The project will stretch beyond November, though, as toll booths and their concrete islands are removed, entrance/exit ramps are realigned to make higher-speed traffic safe, and extra-wide toll plazas such as the one at Exit 24 are narrowed to a manageable number of lanes.
The only actual toll increase proposed in 2021 is on the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge across the Hudson River between Westchester and Rockland counties, where standard E-ZPass users would pay $5.25 in 2021, up from $4.75 now.
The cost of traversing the rest of the Thruway end-to-end will be unchanged for New York residents using E-ZPass, but may increase or decrease slightly in local travel because tolling is now being broken down into segments within the system, rather than being simply an exit-to-exit calculation.
The E-ZPass toll for driving a two-axle passenger vehicle between Exits 24 and 25, for example, would drop from 29 cents to 27 cents in 2021, and from 43 cents to 38 cents between Exits 27 and 28.
The Thruway Authority Board of Directors proposed a 30% surcharge on every toll paid by mail by motorists who don’t have an E-ZPass tag and a 15% surcharge on motorists using an out-of-state E-ZPass. There would also be a $2 surcharge on each pay-by-mail statement to cover processing costs.
These would take effect Jan. 1.
The pay-by-mail surcharge would boost the 2021 cost of driving a car across the Mario Cuomo bridge from $5.25 to $6.83. Driving from Exit 26 (Schenectady) to Exit 31 (Utica) would be $4.10 instead of $3.16.
The Thruway Authority said the pay-by-mail surcharges and the surcharges for non-residents are both significantly lower than those imposed by some other states on their toll highways.
System-wide, E-ZPass accounted for 79.7% of all Thruway tolls paid in July 2020, up from 76.7% in July 2019. The percentage was higher at specific locations where toll collection already is cashless — such as the Mario Cuomo Bridge, at 85%.
At Capital Region toll plazas, the percentage of motorists who pay with E-ZPass also varies. In 2019, these were:
- Exit 23 — 82%
- Exit 24 — 76%
- Exit 25 — 76%
- Exit 25A — 74%
- Exit 26 — 78%
- Exit 27 — 77%
- Exit 28 — 81%
Statistics for 2020 have been skewed by the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first seven months of the year, 3.44 billion miles were driven on the Thruway system, down 28% from 4.77 billion miles in the same seven months of 2019.
Passenger vehicle traffic was significantly decreased, as fewer people commuted or took off on recreational travel. But commercial traffic was affected to a much lesser degree, as truckers kept on trucking.
Notably, the number of miles driven by those who did get on the Thruway was almost the same — down 4.7% for passenger vehicles and down just 0.1% for commercial vehicles.
The Capital Region is home to the busiest toll plaza in the entire Thruway system, Exit 24. In 2019, 27.4 million vehicles passed through it. But during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown in New York, traffic there was down greatly, though not as much as at some other exits, perhaps because it is a major interstate interchange.
Exit 25, also one of the busiest toll plazas in the system, dropped 63% from 637,975 vehicles entering in April 2019 to 272,176 in April 2020.
Exit 24 was down 58%, from 1,097,567 vehicles entering to 456,336.
The decrease in traffic allowed the cashless toll project to progress more quickly in some cases, as when lane closures could be started earlier and continued later without creating a bottleneck.
The public hearings on the toll changes will be held virtually and streamed online at thruway.ny.gov from 2-4 p.m. Tuesday, 4-6 p.m. Wednesday and 6-8 p.m. Thursday.
Members of the public who wish to comment may register on the website to speak via WebEx during the meeting; submit written comment via email to [email protected]; or send written comments via surface mail to:
Toll Comments, c/o Legal Department, New York State Thruway Authority, 200 Southern Blvd., P.O. Box 189, Albany, NY 12201-0189.
The Thruway Authorities board of directors will make a final determination on the toll surcharges after the hearing.