ALBANY, N.Y. -- On Thursday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo rankled upstate leaders when he suggested the full state Thruway system will pay for the new $4 billion Tappan Zee Bridge downstate.
While tolls are frozen through 2020, the talk of paying for the new bridge through Thruway toll hikes as long been feared by upstate lawmakers and groups.
Cuomo stopped short of saying toll hikes are in the future, but higher tolls on the new bridge and the Thruway are widely expected after the 2020 freeze ends.
Tolls on the 570-mile superhighway were last increased 5 percent in 2010.
"All the tolls are frozen through 2020," Cuomo said Thursday in Manhattan, when asked by state GOP chairman Ed Cox about the bridge's financing during a breakfast speech.
"We have used cash to pay for part of the bridge over the past two years, and the remainder after 2020 will be paid with toll revenue from the entire system."
New bridge to open
The state Thruway Authority owns the Tappan Zee Bridge -- officially named the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge -- and the thoroughfare that runs from western New York into the New York City suburbs.
The first span of the new bridge is set to open Aug. 25.
So all the toll revenue -- which is main source of the agency's funding -- goes into one pot to pay for operations and road repairs.
In fact, the current Tappan Zee Bridge has helped subsidize the rest of the system because the $5 roundtrip toll is a major revenue driver for the Thruway.
Tappan Zee Bridge tolls account for about 20 percent of the Thruway's entire revenue.
But with the new bridge, the Thruway Authority will need to cover the cost of the $4 billion bridge, likely requiring higher tolls, said E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative think tank in Albany.
"At the end of the day, the system will have net less revenue going forward than it did immediately before the new Tappan Zee Bridge construction began," he said.
Funding without toll hikes
Cuomo has sought to offset the cost of the bridge and freeze tolls by using about $2 billion from bank settlements for the Thruway in recent years, as well as taking the canal system off the Thruway's books -- a savings of about $80 million a year.
The Thruway also secured a $1.6 billion loan from the federal government.
But critics said the Thruway has yet to lay out a full financial plan for the bridge's funding, leaving it uncertain what the new toll on the bridge may eventually be and what increase there may be to travelers across the system.
"It's unfair to ask upstate commuters to pay for a bridge that many will never use," the business group, Unshackle Upstate, said.
"We strongly encourage Governor Cuomo and members of the Thruway Authority board to explore other ways to pay for this downstate project. Conducting a thorough, independent forensic audit of the Thruway Authority's operations and finances, which we proposed five years ago, would be a good first step."
Thruway officials have warned it is too soon to know what, if any, toll increases may be considered after 2020 as it undertakes a $1.5 billion capital program over the next five years to repair upstate roads and bridges on the highway.
The road ahead
When toll increases have been considered since 2010, transportation groups and upstate lawmakers rose in protest.
McMahon said the Thruway has erred in not incrementally increasing the toll on the current Tappan Zee Bridge in preparation for the new bridge, which will fully open next year.
At $5 roundtrip, the toll is at least one third the price of other New York City area crossings.
The cash toll on the Throgs Neck and Whitestone bridges, for example, is $8.50 each way.
"The primary source of new toll revenue for the new bridge should be the people who will benefit from the bridge," McMahon said.
"The authority should already have begun raising bridge tolls in small increments. Drivers who can see the new bridges rising beside them will at least aware of what they are paying for."
The Empire Center's Ken Girardin also commented on the issue.
"The Thruway is inevitably going to have to raise tolls. They're building a new $4 billion bridge. They are facing substantial capital costs, and at the same time a declining quality in the roads. So, they're going to have to raise tolls. The question is are they going to raise tolls on the right drivers? There's no reason to hike tolls in Buffalo and use extra money to pay for a bridge that those folks are never going to drive on," says Girardin.
The Thruway Authority did not have anyone available Friday evening to do a phone interview with 2 On Your Side, but did point out in an email that the Tappan Zee Bridge itself accounts for 20-percent of the revenue collected by the entire Thruway system.
Tolls on other bridges in the state are higher, so one option could be to just raise tolls on the Tappan Zee Bridge.
"The Thruway has a mechanism in place already to collect the money they need to maintain each section of the Thruway from the drivers who drive on it. That's why we have toll booths every few miles on the Thruway. It's not a flat admission fee. It's designed to only charge people money for the roads that they use. That's the way it should be done. That's the responsible policy," says Girardin.
You can watch the press conference here:
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