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Another inconvenient truth: No one pays their own (Thru)way

Another inconvenient truth: No one pays their own (Thru)way

Paying for Tappan Zee costs draws ire
Another inconvenient truth: No one pays their own (Thru)way
The new Tappan Zee Bridge under construction in Tarrytown on May 31, 2017.
Photographer: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

The headline in The Gazette said, “Drivers will pay for new Tappan Zee”; to which this observer replied silently to himself, “Well, who else would?”

The gist of this news is that Thruway tolls apparently will finance the balance of the cost of constructing the new bridge spanning the Hudson between Westchester and Rockland counties.

The one it is replacing was decades past its projected useful life, and anyone crossing it could see that keeping parts of it from plunging into the river had become an ultimately futile course.

Nonetheless, learning that statewide toll increases imposed from year 2020 will underwrite at least some of the costs of constructing the crossing has seemed to reignite the ire of some upstate residents and their representatives.  

Once again, they say, upstate will be required to pay for infrastructure and services primarily benefitting those who live and work in New York City and its environs. Their perception is that New York City is constantly sucking to the south the resources that should be going to upstate and its needs. 

State Sen. Jim Tedisco (R-Glenville) decried tolls as “really a tax” on commuters and claimed that the trucking industry is already unfairly exploited by these road use fees and may decide to use local roads as a less costly alternative — reducing their useful life and threatening public safety.

Sen. George Amedore (R-Rotterdam) argued that upstate taxpayers are already overburdened and seemed to suggest that the responsibility for the costs of maintaining the Thruway should be calculated and recovered locally instead of systemwide.

Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara (D-Rotterdam) cited his own record of opposing Thruway toll increases as economically damaging to local commuters using the restricted access highway daily to get to and from work. He prefers “alternative revenue streams” to pay for the Tappan Zee’s replacement and suggests that current Thruway toll revenues could be better managed.

Putting aside the fact that any particular operation could be said to require better management, the available evidence simply does not support the rest of this.

First of all, tolls are not a tax.

Taxes are applicable whether or not one partakes in the activity being financed. A road toll is imposed only on those that use the road. This makes tolls a user fee, not “really a tax”.

So use of tolls as a financing option for road maintenance costs actually should be favored by those (like the three legislators) arguing for payment at the point of use over more widely applied and general methods of defraying such costs.

Secondly, it is another inconvenient truth that no one is actually paying the real cost of road use regardless of whether there is a toll or not.

This fact is confirmed in a comprehensive late 2015 study, “Who Pays for Roads,” conducted jointly by the Frontier Group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).

As reported in The Atlantic, “… [I]t has actually never been the case that road users paid their own way. Not only that, but the amount of their subsidy [from other non-toll sources] has steadily increased in recent years. The share of the costs paid from road-user fees has dropped from about 70 percent in the 1960s to less than half today.”

So, the current Tappan Zee toll ($5) hasn’t — and any future increase won’t — fully defray costs; but neither does anyone else using the Thruway anywhere.

As for those heavy long-haul trucks, each “imposes roadway costs equal to hundreds or thousands of light vehicles,” according to a recent Victoria Transport Policy Institute cost/benefit analysis.

Higher toll payments on trucks do not begin to reflect the gap between the costs inflicted by the two.  

The case for trucking being unfairly put upon financially by tolls appears to carry little water.

Furthermore, communities can regulate use of their local roads for safety purposes. Ever see a maximum weight sign?    

Finally, those hectoring about that “sucking sound” from New York City need to reconsider.
Downstate actually generates more tax revenue per capita than it receives from Albany.

“Without (downstate) city money, an independent upstate would have tighter purse strings,” according to the Rockefeller Institute of Government. “On balance, [upstate] would have to spend less.”

So all this caterwauling, while politically expedient, is kind of irresponsible.

Since the evidence shows that we are all in this together, how about we start acting like it? 

John Figliozzi is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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