NY Thruway Authority Starts Hearings on Toll Hikes

Wed April 20, 2005 - Northeast Edition

ALBANY, NY (AP) The New York Thruway Authority began a series of public hearings April 4 on its proposal to raise fees on the nation’s longest toll road for the first time in 17 years, a move that doesn’t sit well with the trucking industry.

“We are having a public conversation about what needs to be done to insure the Thruway continues to play its vital role in the transportation system across New York state,” said Michael Fleischer, executive director of the authority.

Under the authority’s plan, tolls on the 641-mi. Thruway would rise by 25 percent for passenger vehicles and by an average of 35 percent for commercial vehicles. Smaller increases would be imposed on regular and commercial vehicles using the automatic E-ZPass system of payment.

“The marginal players are going to get knocked out [of business], and we don’t have a healthy industry in New York to start with,” said William Joyce, president of the New York State Motor Truck Association.

Joyce said the higher percentage increase for commercial vehicles really isn’t fair given that tractor trailers already pay much more per mile than cars under current rates.

Joyce also noted that in recent years, state government leaders have forced the authority to take over the cost of operating the state canal system and two, non-toll Interstate highways — I-287 (the Cross Westchester Expressway) and I-84 that runs from Port Jervis to the Connecticut border just east of Brewster. That’s reduced pressure on the regular state budget, but Joyce said it is “really driving up the cost of operating the highway.”

Joyce said his group would support a toll increase that doesn’t come down so hard on truckers.

“The highways are our workplace, so we don’t have a problem paying for them,” he said.

Fleischer said the extra money — expected to be approximately $150 million annually — is needed to properly maintain the system and make improvements that will include, among other things, more E-ZPass lanes, highway-speed E-ZPass, improved toll plazas and expanded rest areas for truckers.

Under the authority plan, the toll cost for a car going from Albany to Buffalo would rise to $10.60, up from $8.45. The cost of that same trip in a truck with a 48-ft. trailer would rise by more than 60 percent to $53.75, up from $32.70.

The main section of the Thruway runs from just north of New York City, north to Albany, and then west to Buffalo. Joyce warned that sharply higher tolls for commercial vehicles could lead to heavier traffic on other state highways.

John Corlett, of AAA’s Automobile Club of New York, said his organization shares Joyce’s concern about the Thruway Authority being required to finance the canal system and non-Thruway roads.

“That doesn’t sit well with drivers,” Corlett said.

Despite that, the AAA official said, “The Thruway is the state’s most important highway. I think motorists, by and large, recognize that and are willing to pay more.”

Following April 4’s public hearing in Buffalo, the Thruway Authority held sessions in Syracuse on April 5 and Albany on April 6. The final public hearing will be held April 11 in Suffern, Rockland County.

Fleischer said there could be changes to the plan.

“The proposal is just that, a proposal,” he said.

The three-member board of the Thruway Authority is expected to consider the toll proposal at an April 25 meeting.

In 2000, Republican Gov. George Pataki, who appoints the authority board, managed to kill a proposal for a toll increase. This time around, however, Pataki has not ruled out a toll hike.

Tolls on the Thruway were supposed to have disappeared in 1996, when the original bonds, which financed its construction were to have been paid off. But state officials abandoned that plan in the 1980s, deciding users should continue to pay for the Thruway’s maintenance instead of all taxpayers. That decision was based in part on the fact that about one-third of motorists who use the road are non-New Yorkers.