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Thruway Authority grilled by legislature over proposed toll hikes

For the first time since the proposed Thruway toll hikes, Albany lawmakers had a chance to ask the Authority about the reasons behind the decision.

ALBANY, N.Y. — Now that Governor Hochul has unveiled the state budget, lawmakers are getting to work with their annual budget hearings.  

On the docket for February 6, was a transportation-centric hearing by members of the Senate and Assembly. For the first time since the Thruway Authority announced a proposed toll hike, elected officials were able to question the decision publicly. 

The budget hearing comes three days after New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released a report urging the Thruway Authority only raise tolls as a last resort. 

The Thruway Authority is proposing to change the E-ZPass per mile rate to $0.047 in 2024. 

The current rate is 4.5 cents per mile. The toll will jump to 4.9 cents per mile in 2027 if the proposal is approved. 

"The Thruway authorities operated maintained solely as a user fee system and is not supported by any federal, state or local taxpayer dollars," said interim Thruway Authority director Frank Hoare during the hearing. "We did not receive any portion of the $13 billion that New York received as part of the federal infrastructure funds over the last couple of years."

Hoare was critical of the comptroller's report. 

"The document was released outside of the controller's own procedure audit procedures and without the three ways responses as is the accepted practice," Hoare testified. "As a result, the assessment which is not an audit contains inaccurate and misleading facts, and does not address the revenue needed to operate, maintain and construct a safe and reliable transportation system."

After a prepared statement, lawmakers were able to finally ask questions about the toll hike. 

"I agree with him," Senator Tim Kennedy said, regarding the comptroller's conclusion in the report. "How did the Thruway come to the conclusion that this is the time to increase tolls?

Interim director Hoare laid out, what the Thruway believes, is very basic economics. In the 14 years since the last toll increase, their dollar doesn't buy as much as it once did. 

"In 2010, structural steel was $1.31 a pound, it is now $4.08 a pound," Hoare said. "That's 212% increase."

Hoare said the price of gravel is up 123% since 2010. There are also increases in payroll.

"Our personnel costs, people have gotten raises over the last 14 years," Hoare said. "So that primarily is the reason that it's been 14 years."

Kennedy highlighted that the comptroller's report said the Thruway Authority could find other revenue streams, such as leasing fiber and cell tower space to third parties. 

The Thruway says they've been doing it. In 2022 the Thruway Authority earned over $8M from leasing fiber and access to its right of way. It's projected 2023 revenues will increase to $11M but eventually, plateau as space to lease becomes limited. 

"95% of our revenue comes from tolls," Hoare said.

Southern Tier Senator George Borrello challenged the Thruway Authority on its transition to cashless tolling, saying the program was supposed save money. 

"How are we going all of a sudden so quickly into a deficit after what should have been you know, hundreds of millions of dollars in savings?" Borrello asked.

Director Hoare was noticeably irked by accusation the that Thruway said cashless tolling would save money.  

"Electronic tolling was not meant to save money," Director Hoare said. "It was meant to provide safety, and convenience to our customers and help the environment."

The Thruway Authority website, in its FAQ, highlights that cashless tolling will save motorists money. An argument can be made about semantics, but no lawmaker made it. 

Other lawmakers from around the state took turns questioning the Authority. 

28th District (Manhattan) Senator Liz Krueger chastised the Thruway for waiting so long to raise tolls. 

" I can't believe we kicked the can down the road so long that now we find ourselves having to do significant jump," Senator Krueger said. "Personally I would have preferred to see it go up every year a little bit."

Thruway Authority CFO Matthew Howard tried to lay out how insignificant the toll hike will be. 

"The trip from Buffalo to Albany today currently is a $12 toll," Howard said. "To go from Albany to Buffalo as a result of the proposed toll change by 2027 that total would increase by about $0.91 cents to $13."

Howard said that pales in comparison to neighboring states like Pennsylvania. 

"If you were to drive that same trip on the Pennsylvania Turnpike today, instead of paying $13, it'd be 39."

As the session ended the Thruway Authority confirmed there will be public hearings on the matter, but did not provide a specific date. 

"We are working on that, and looking at where we can hold those hearings in mid-to-late spring," Hoar said. "We are committed to making them accessible and having every voice heard."

The Thruway Authority has set up an online comment portal where the public can submit comments on the proposed hike. You can email comments to: tollcomments@thruway.ny.gov

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