(New York, NY - WNYC) The two-part political rule for any toll increase is a) voters will hate it b) officials must jockey to shift the blame.
That dynamic began today with the release of a report by state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli questioning the need for a proposed 45 percent toll hike on commercial vehicles using the New York State Thruway. He blasted the authority for an operating budget that has ballooned by 36 percent over the past ten years, and urged the authority to save money by "consolidating functions" and handing off control of the money-losing Erie Canal.
“Imposing a large toll increase could have damaging effects on consumers and businesses at a time when many New Yorkers are struggling to recover from the recession,” DiNapoli said. “The Thruway should do more before relying on yet another toll hike to make ends meet.”
Governor Cuomo did not disagree. He echoed DiNapoli in saying tolls should be raised as "a last resort." But while taking questions from reporters in Albany, the governor raised the specter of "a real crisis" for the state if the thruway authority doesn't have the revenue it needs to "fix roads and build new bridges."
Then the finger-pointing began in earnest.
Thomas Madison, the Cuomo-appointed executive director of the thruway authority, fired off a statement blaming DiNapoli's lax oversight for contributing to the authority's dire financial straits. "The Comptroller, and his audits over the years, have actually contributed to past problems at the Thruway Authority by failing to report years of fiscal gimmicks and deferred expenses," Madison said.
Knowing the timeline is crucial to sorting out the argument. Madison took over the thruway authority last September; DiNapoli has been comptroller since early 2007. Madison was essentially blaming prior administrations at the authority for taking out burdensome loans that are now coming due--and DiNapoli for not calling them on it.
Then Madison defended a toll hike this year, at least in theory:
“The fact remains that tolls for large trucks on the Thruway – mostly long distance haulers – are 50 to 85 percent less in New York than in comparable states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania. And each of these trucks creates thousands of times more damage to roads and bridges than a passenger car. Heavy trucks, not passenger vehicles, should bear these added costs, so that tolls can be kept as low as possible for all motorists.”
When reporters asked Cuomo whether the thruway authority should take DiNapoli's suggestion and have the authority give up oversight of the corporation that oversees the the occasionally scandal-plagued Erie Canal, Cuomo dodged the question. "The canal is a great asset to the state," Cuomo said. "I don't think there's anyone who says that we should close down the Erie Canal. It's part of our legacy, it's part of our history, it's important for tourism."
Of course DiNapoli wasn't questioning the canal's importance, only that its operation had cost the authority more than $1 billion over the past two decades--and that the state would be better served to pay the canal's bills with revenue not collected from toll-paying drivers. Cuomo did concede that the canal was hurting the authority's bottom line: "It is not a money-maker at this point," he said.
The first of several public hearings on the toll hikes is scheduled for tomorrow in Buffalo. If passed, the hike would be the fifth increase since 2005.