NY Conflicted on Hiking Tolls for Trucks

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(Karen DeWitt, Albany) The board in charge of setting tolls for New York's main highways is scheduled to meet again next Monday. But there’s still uncertainty whether the New York State Thruway Authority will finally act on a proposal to raise truck tolls.

The 45 percent toll increase on trucks, first proposed by the Thruway Authority last spring, has languished for months as the board has scheduled, then abruptly cancelled several meetings. Opponents, including the trucking industry, have condemned the idea, saying it detracts from the state’s recent efforts to be more business friendly.

At a cabinet meeting called by Governor Andrew Cuomo in recent days, Thruway Authority executive director Tom Madison says it hasn’t been decided yet whether the board will continue to push its proposal at a meeting scheduled for December 17th. Madison says he knows the toll hike idea is widely unpopular.

“We’ve heard at the toll hearings loud and clear from our customers,” Madison said. “We’re exploring every possible alternative.”

Madison spoke following a presentation on proposals for new Tappan Zee Bridge, in which three design options were unveiled as artist's renderings.

Cuomo has neither supported nor condemned the toll hike proposal, saying he understands that the authority, which has been poorly managed in the past, might need new revenue to avoid a bond rating downgrade. The Thruway Authority holds billions of dollars in road construction bonds. But the governor has said he’d like to see toll hikes implemented only as a last resort.

“I don’t think [it's] any mystery. It’s a tough situation for the Thruway,” Cuomo said. “They’re under pressure from the bond underwriters.”

But Cuomo says there have been enough toll hikes lately. The authority has raised the fares several times in the past decade. Less than two weeks ago, tolls were increased on bridges and tunnels controlled by the Port Authority of NY and NJ.

“I don’t think you go to the last resort until you have proven that there is no other viable option,” Cuomo said. “And I don’t believe they’ve gone through that process yet.”

Assembly Republican Leader Brian Kolb has proposed that the Thruway Authority merge with the state’s Transportation Department, to save money. Kolb says the authority has been secretive, and mismanaged. He says he’d rather see an independent audit conducted of the Authority’s books to find out whether a toll hike is really justified.

“You’ve got an agency that won’t answer the bell, in terms of questions about how its finances are run, why is so much money needed,” Kolb said. “They’re not answering the public.”

Madison, with the Thruway Authority, says since he was appointed to his post by Governor Cuomo over a year ago, he has been trying to cut costs.

“We have taken a hard look and continue to do so internally,” said Madison, who says the construction program has been cut by $300 million, and the authority has reduced in operating expenses by $25 million.

The Thruway Authority meeting on December 17th, to approve proposals for a new Tappan Zee Bridge plan, is its first gathering since early August. A spokesman could not say whether the toll hike proposal, in its present or an altered form will be voted upon then. Spokesman Dan Weiller says even though thruway executive director Madison said all options are on the table, he did not mean a toll hike for passenger cars. He says that option has been ruled out.