The Williamsville toll barrier.
By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY -- As the state Thruway Authority considers a whopping 45 percent toll increase on trucks, more than 1 million drivers between 2007 and 2011 avoided paying tolls and dodged $35 million in charges and fines.
Records reviewed by Gannett's Albany Bureau through a Freedom of Information request show that the beleaguered Thruway Authority's finances have been hurt by its inability to recoup tolls and fines from people who zip through EZ-Pass lanes scot-free.
Of the $35 million in uncollected tolls and fines since 2007, $7 million has been recouped through a credit agency, the Thruway said.
The biggest trouble spot is the Tappan Zee Bridge, records show. Between 2007 and 2011, nearly 80,000 passenger vehicles and trucks didn't pay the $5 roundtrip toll when they crossed the Hudson Valley bridge between Westchester and Rockland County. That accounted for $7 million in uncollected fines and tolls.
The state is planning to build a new Tappan Zee Bridge, with tolls that could be as high as $14 roundtrip.
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- Buffalo Division Headquarters: (716) 631-9017
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Business groups and state lawmakers have been critical of the Thruway's proposed 45 percent toll increase on most trucks. They said the uncollected tolls are one reason why any toll increase should receive further review. The Thruway delayed a vote in September.
"That's why I said let's have a forensic audit of their books," said Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua. "We need a complete analysis before we implement a 45 percent toll increase."
The Thruway Authority has faced warnings from credit agencies that it needs to improve its finances and toll collections to maintain its credit rating. The agencies also said the 570-mile Thruway needs to increase tolls to ensure its fiscal stability.
The Thruway Authority defended its collections process, saying only a fraction of tolls are not collected. The Thruway is the longest toll road in the country.
"Toll violators cheat all other motorists traveling on the New York State Thruway," said agency spokesman Daniel Weiller. "While we do collect 99.6 percent of all tolls, any lost dollars are important because the Thruway receives no state financial support and therefore is dependent upon toll revenues to maintain the safety and reliability of the 574-mile superhighway."
Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has criticized the Thruway Authority for its uncollected tolls.
In an August report, DiNapoli said the Thruway Authority last year collected $634 million in tolls -- representing 95 percent of its total revenue. As of last March, the Thruway Authority had submitted $18 million to a collections agency for uncollected tolls over the past two years.
In audits in recent years, the Comptroller's Office said it made 12 recommendations to improve toll collections, such as improving its billing system and developing a better way to collect tolls on rental cars.
DiNapoli's office said three of his recommendations were implemented, four were partially done, and five were not.
DiNapoli said improved toll collection should be among the steps the Thruway takes before it seeks a toll increase. The toll increase would bring in about $85 million a year in new revenue, the Thruway estimated.
"I think what people want to see is that they've tried everything," DiNapoli said in an interview Wednesday with Gannett's Albany Bureau. "Instead, they seem to go to the toll increase and then dismiss some of these other ideas. And that's always the easy way out."
Collecting tolls and fines can be difficult, records show.
For example, the top scofflaw in New York was Action Redi-Mix, a bankrupt concrete plant in Yonkers that went out of business two years ago. It owes the state $228,351 in tolls and fines as of March, the most recent statistics available.
Penske Trucking Leasing, based in East Chicago, was second at $152,429 in tolls and fines that were owed.
Some individuals who ranked tops on the state's unpaid toll list either couldn't be reached for comment or were unaware that they owed money to the state.
Asked about the wisdom of considering a toll increase for large trucks when it can't effectively collect all the tolls in the first place, NYS Thruway Authority Board Vice Chair Donna Luh told WGRZ-TV, "people certainly have the right to ask that question," beofre vowing to look into the mater further.
Luh says she was surprised to hear about the scope of uncollected tolls.
"It did catch myself and some of the other board members by surprise...we should have been more in the loop about this...I'm not going to try and spin that any other way," Luh said.
Mike Durant, state director for the National Federation for Independent Business, said the Thruway Authority needs to find more efficiencies and better toll collections before it hits up drivers with higher tolls. Tolls were increased 5 percent in 2009 and 2010 for all drivers, and EZ-Pass discounts were reduced.
"They need to fix it themselves -- not the on back of business owners, tollpayers and taxpayers," Durant said. He said government becomes "addicted to going to business owners and taxpayers to solve their problems, they can't help themselves."
The Thruway began using EZ-Pass in 1993, allowing for tags in front car windows to track toll usage and to bill a travel's account. But it also removed barriers at many toll plazas, making it easier to zoom through without paying.
And as tolls have increased in recent years, so too has the amount that's not been collected. The number of toll violators increased from 157,743 in 2007 to 224,474 in 2011, up 42 percent.
Each violation come with a $25 fine, and most of the uncollected money comes from fines -- totaling about $20 million over the past five years, the Thruway Authority said.
Since the system was established, it has been extended to more than a dozen states, with most users using credit cars to pay their bills.
For users without EZ-Pass who don't pay the tolls, the state uses a photograph of the license plate to identify the vehicle's owner. Then they are billed the full toll from Buffalo to Woodbury, which is in the Hudson Valley.
Some drivers have balked at the full cost, and some lawmakers have sought to change the law so drivers aren't penalized for the full length of the Thruway.
The Thruway Authority is also hurt by not having jurisdiction to take additional steps against out-of-state violators. While in-state EZ-Pass users can have their accounts suspended, New York can't do the same for out-of-state violators, state officials said.
"Uncollected tolls from violators are costly to recover, and the authority has no out-of-state enforcement ability," Weiller said. "We are working with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to pursue stronger enforcement legislation."
As states seek additional revenue, some are starting to work together. Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire this year allowed each other to suspend the vehicle registrations of violators in their states.
The Thruway estimates that about 30 percent of its uncollected tolls and fines come from out-of-state users.
The uncollected tolls come as Thruway expenses have outpaced revenue. Toll-paying riders dropped about 10 percent from 2005 to 2011.
In an audit in August, DiNapoli found that costs at the Thruway Authority rose 36 percent over the past decade and debt payments nearly doubled. Revenue hasn't kept up, largely because of declining traffic.
DiNapoli said that from 2002 through 2011, revenue grew 4 percent annually and expenses grew 5 percent.
"Too often in the past the Thruway has pushed costs and difficult decisions to the future by raising tolls or borrowing," he said in the August statement.
Includes reporting by the Journal News database analyst Tim Henderson and Gannett Albany Bureau staff writer Haley Viccaro.
-- More than 1 million drivers since 2007 avoided paying tolls on the state Thruway and dodged $35 million in charges and fines.
-- The Thruway Authority said it has recouped about $7 million through a collection agency.
-- As tolls rose, so did scofflaws. The number of toll violators increased 42 percent between 2007 and 2011.
-- Out-of-state violators account for about 30 percent of the uncollected tolls, and they face limited punishment.
Coming Next Sunday:
As the state Thruway Authority weighs a steep toll hike on most commercial trucks, there have been renewed discussions about whether the state's canal system should remain on its books or be overhauled.