The Williamsville toll barrier.
NYS Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R).
BUFFALO, N.Y. - The New York State Thruway authority is in charge of maintaining hundreds of miles of highway. So is the New York State Department of Transportation. So why not merge them?
That's the question one of the state's top leaders is now asking.
Brian Kolb, the Republican leader in the New York State Assembly, wants to merge these two entities, possibly saving taxpayers and toll payers tens of millions of dollars. He has introduced legislation to combine both organizations under the control of the D.O.T.
Assemblyman Ray Walter (R-Amherst) also supports the measure.
"We are at such a crisis point with the Thruway Authority that something has to be done," Walter said.
The authority has recently indicated it is so broke that it needs to raise tolls for trucks by a whopping 45 percent. At the same time, a recent 2 On Your Side investigation uncovered that the authority's local administration office alone is spending more than 4.1 million dollars a year on white-collar workers, some of whom are politically connected.
New York State Lawmakers have traditionally fought to keep the Thruway Authority separate from the state for budget reasons. This method prevents the billions of dollars the authority has borrowed for roads and bridges from showing up in the state budget.
Kolb's merger proposal would keep them as separate entities, except the D.O.T. would run the Thruway Authority.
Bruce Fisher, a public policy expert with Buffalo State College, said the idea could work.
"The advantage would be the legislature would actually have more oversight," Fisher said. "This disadvantage is sometimes, when the legislature has oversight, things don't go exactly as you'd want them to go."
REPORTER: Are we really better off putting the politicians back in charge of the Thruway Authority?
WALTER: Well, what I think we're looking to do here is to put the real experts in charge. The DOT commissioner is supposed to be the top expert in the state when it comes to road and bridge maintenance and management.
The merger plan would also call for a forensic audit of the Thruway Authority's spending. The audit would go through the authority's budget line-by-line and job-by-job. While a merger could save money, no public official, at least not yet, is willing to guarantee that a merger would still spare truckers from some kind of toll hike.
Kolb's office sent the following press release Friday:
Four Thruway toll hikes since 2004 and now a proposed 45 percent toll hike on trucks. Public hearings that excluded entire regions of the state and millions of New Yorkers. Canceled meetings and closed government. An unaccountable, unelected bureaucracy. This is the legacy of the New York State Thruway Authority, a broken, unresponsive public entity that isn't working for taxpayers, says Assembly Republican Leader Brian Kolb (R,C,I-Canandaigua).
"In response to the continued lack of accountability at the Thruway Authority, Leader Kolb is introducing legislation - the "Thruway Authority Accountability Act" - specifically designed to fix these chronic problems and make the Thruway Authority work. The Thruway Authority Accountability Act would restore accountability, increase efficiency and save taxpayer dollars by making structural reforms and statutory changes to the Thruway Authority. Highlights of Leader Kolb's legislation include the following:
1.) Merge the Thruway Authority with the State Department of Transportation (DOT);
2.) Create a new Thruway Authority Board whose members must have transportation expertise;
3.) Make the State DOT Commissioner Chair of the Thruway Authority Board;
4.) Require a comprehensive forensic audit of Thruway Authority finances every three years - and release the audit's findings to the public;
5.) Require any proposed Thruway toll hikes - and the reasons for the requested increases - be clearly identified in the State DOT's budget; and
6.) Save taxpayer dollars by consolidating the Thruway Authority's overlapping functions within the State DOT and streamlining the Authority through attrition.
"The Thruway Authority is not working. It's not working for taxpayers, motorists, trucking companies or New York being open for business. The currently proposed 45 percent toll hike on trucks would actually be the fifth toll hike since 2004. As a frame of reference, in the first 50 years of the Thruway, there were only four toll increases. Clearly, the problems at the Authority are so severe, the lack of accountability so systemic, the fiscal irresponsibility so breathtaking, we need to hit the reset button and start over," Leader Kolb said.
Leader Kolb noted that in December of last year, the Spending And Government Efficiency (SAGE) Commission appointed by Governor Cuomo had initially approved a proposal to share service and leadership teams between the State DOT and a new Thruway/Bridge Authority. However, the cost savings merger proposed by SAGE did not make it into the Commission's January 2012 recommendations.
"It's not enough to just throw rocks and criticize the Thruway Authority. I want to fix the problems and make this broken arm of government work. The Thruway Authority Accountability Act builds on last year's SAGE Commission recommendations, would fix the chronic problems and restore the Thruway Authority's lost credibility. My legislation ensures a rational Thruway toll plan to assist in long-term financial planning," Leader Kolb said.
The Thruway Authority has more than 3,000 employees with over $300 million in payroll and approximately $3.2 billion in outstanding bonds by end of this year. Under Leader Kolb's legislation, the DOT would take over day-to-day operational oversight of the Thruway Authority that would continue to exist within DOT to protect outstanding bond obligations, and its credit rating, and thus prevent any default on debt.
Leader Kolb's legislation would dissolve the current Thruway Board: a new board would be appointed with requirements that members must have transportation expertise. The DOT Commissioner would always serve as Chair. Presently, the Thruway Authority has seven appointed board members: one by Governor Pataki (who was later re-appointed), five by Governor Paterson and one by Governor Cuomo, all of whom serve staggered nine-year terms.
"This is not a 'Republicans versus Democrats' issue. Frankly, board appointees from both parties have played a role in allowing the Thruway Authority to operate with little regard for the impact its continued toll hikes have on hard-working families. Since Republicans and Democrats created the mess, both parties should work together to clean it up. My hope is this legislation receives true bi-partisan support. It doesn't matter to me if my name is on the final bill - my only concern is making the Thruway Authority functional again," Leader Kolb said.
Leader Kolb's legislation also requires the Thruway Authority to undergo a comprehensive forensic audit every three years and publicly release the findings so policymakers, taxpayers and the media can review every dollar of the Authority's spending.
In addition, Leader Kolb's legislation would prohibit the termination of any Thruway Authority employees as consequence of the merger since the Authority's problems have resulted from its unaccountable management and poor leadership. No employees would be laid off under Leader Kolb's proposal; over time, cost savings to taxpayers would be achieved by attrition, which, for most State Agencies, occurs at rates estimated to be between five and ten percent annually. Further cost-savings mergers of state entities, such as the Bridge Authority or Canal Corporation, would also be on the table for discussion.