ALBANY - Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he would switch to a cashless tolling system on the Thruway tomorrow, if he could. Thruway leaders say it's the future.
There's only one problem: They're struggling to figure out how to pay for it.
Last week, Cuomo reiterated his support for automatic electronic tolling, a system that allows vehicles to drive through toll gantries at high speeds while billing the driver's E-ZPass or mailing an invoice to the car's owner.
But he also acknowledged a difficult reality: A wholesale switch to cashless tolling on the 570-mile Thruway will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars up front, which isn't included in the superhighway's current budget.
A key state senator this week suggested the issue contributed to friction between Cuomo and Bill Finch, the Thruway Authority's now-former acting executive director, whom Cuomo dismissed last month after just a year on the job.
"I think one of the reasons why (Finch) is no longer acting director is because I think his view was at odds with others in the (Cuomo) administration," Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer, an Amherst Republican who chairs the Senate's authorities committee, said about cashless tolls.
New York's slow rollout
Several states -- including neighboring Massachusetts and New Jersey -- have accelerated their move toward cashless tolling in recent years, citing the traffic and efficiency benefits of allowing cars to enter tolled highways at high speeds.
New York, on the other hand, has taken a slower approach.
On the Thruway, only the toll gantries at the Tappan Zee Bridge are on a cashless system. The Grand Island bridges in western New York are scheduled to make the switch next year, Cuomo and Thruway leaders announced last month.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is expected to complete the switch to cashless tolling at its bridges and tunnels by the end of the year, with an estimated initial price tag of $500 million.
In Niagara Falls last week, Cuomo said the downstate transit authorities -- the MTA and the Port Authority -- had been reluctant to switch to electronic tolling because of a fear of losing out on toll revenue from those who ignore the bills sent to their homes.
To ease their concerns, state troopers have been positioned at the MTA bridges to help catch chronic toll dodgers, Cuomo said.
"That was the hiccup, the delay in New York," Cuomo said. "It was a culture. They believed cashless tolling would reduce revenue."
Expanding a cashless system to the entire Thruway is a much larger task, however, with dozens of toll gantries spread from Buffalo to Albany to the Hudson Valley.
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And the Thruway's five-year capital plan, which is the spending for infrastructure upgrades and maintenance, does not currently include funding for cashless tolling.
"I would do everywhere tomorrow, but it is a very, very expensive operation to make that transition – the initial investment," Cuomo said.
"You save money over the long run, but to put up a gantry, as they call it, to put up the structure and the cameras and design it with the software is millions and millions of dollars per application."
Transit watchers, meanwhile, will look to Cuomo's next state budget proposal in January to see if the state will fund a cashless tolling expansion.
Over the past year, Cuomo's aides and Thruway leaders have had numerous meetings about how to expand the cashless system. Those meetings resulted in part with the decision to install a cashless system at the Grand Island bridges.
At the same time, however, Cuomo and Finch had clashed over various Thruway-related issues, including the response from authority leaders to a 2016 crane collapse at the $4 billion Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project in the Lower Hudson Valley.
Cuomo replaced Finch as Thruway director last month, handing the post over to Matthew Driscoll, the former mayor of Syracuse who had been state transportation commissioner.
Had Cuomo not replaced him, Finch likely would have run into problems in the Senate, which has to confirm Cuomo's selection for Thruway director.
Ranzenhofer said his committee would not have approved Finch's nomination, questioning whether Finch -- the former mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut -- had the appropriate credentials to run a major transportation authority.
Finch's title was acting executive director during his tenure because the Senate hadn't confirmed him.
"I’m hopeful that with Matt Driscoll coming on board, that he’ll have a different view and that we’re going to put some elbow grease and muscle behind it and get (cashless tolls) done,” Ranzenhofer said.
Finch was not opposed to the concept of cashless tolling as a concept, calling it the "wave of the future" at a state budget hearing in April. But he also acknowledged the Thruway had no concrete plans to move forward with such a system.
“I think in the not-too-distant future, you will see more electronic, cashless tolling," he said then.
In a statement this week, Thruway Authority spokeswoman Jennifer Givner said the authority is still looking at how to expand it.
"As we’ve said in the past, cashless tolling represents the future of toll collection, and we continue to examine the expansion of cashless tolling system-wide," she said.
The Thruway Authority did not immediately provide details on how much revenue it is seeking to recoup from drivers going through the Tappan Zee Bridge cashless tolls without E-Z Pass since it started last year.
Director lands new job
Finch, who did not return requests for comment this week, has since landed a job as an environmental fellow at SUNY's Rockefeller Institute of Government, which is run by Jim Malatras, a former top aide to Cuomo.
He will will make $120,000 a year in his new full-time job, a cut from the $175,000 he was making as acting Thruway director.
"When he was mayor of Bridgeport, (energy and environmental) sustainability was really something that he was into and did a lot of," Malatras said. "It is an emerging area, not only for researchers but generally the policy is getting more local."
Any push toward cashless tolling is likely to receive pushback from labor unions representing the Thruway Authority's toll collectors, who have manned the toll booths since the superhighway's opening in 1954.
The state's Associated General Contractors, meanwhile, have proactively criticized the idea of shifting money around in the Thruway's capital plan to fund cashless tolling gantries, warning that the regular maintenance of infrastructure could suffer.
"The capital plan shouldn't be cannibalized for purposes of electronic tolling, and Bill Finch should be commended if that was his position," said Mike Elmendorf, the contractors' group's president and CEO.
"I think recent comments seem to be reflecting that reality that they don't have the resources to do that."