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Transportation Nation

NY Conflicted on Hiking Tolls for Trucks

Monday, December 10, 2012

(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.

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Transportation Nation

NY Legislature Considers 45% Toll Hike for Trucks

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

(Karen Dewitt -- Albany, NY) The New York State Assembly began hearings Wednesday on 45 percent toll increase for trucks supported by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Several Assembly Republicans, who are in the minority party in that house, held the first of two hearing in Albany proposed by the  State Thruway Authority.

Testimony ranged from a small steel fabrication business owner, who said the additional shipping costs for the toll hike will equal one worker’s salary and benefits, to a representative from the farm lobby. The Farm Bureau’s Julie Suarez says the recent floods and drought have already put farmers in a “a very difficult economic situation.” She says under the proposal, a truck carrying produce from Buffalo to New York City “results in an average year's increase of $11,500 to that farmer’s bottom line”.

The testimony from the farmers, small business owners and trucking companies will not be heard by the Thruway Authority, however. In a letter to the Republican Assemblymembers, Thruway officials said the public comment period is over, and that three public hearings have already been held in Buffalo, Syracuse, and Newburgh, NY. That response angered Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, whose district borders the Hudson River.

“They’re out of touch, they’re a rogue agency, and they need to be reined in,” said McLaughlin. The NY Thruway authority is also in charge of the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge, an $5.2 billion infrastructure megaproject that has drawn criticism for a lack of decision-making transparency despite an extended the public comment period.

In a written response, the Executive Director of the Thruway Authority, Tom Madison, says large trucks put “thousands of times more wear and tear on the road” than cars but are currently charged just five times as much as passenger vehicles. He says the toll increase would help remedy that “inequality.” And he says the Authority has already trimmed nearly $400 million from its budget.

Governor Cuomo, who appointed Madison to his post, has not actively opposed the truck toll hike. In his most recent remarks about the tolls, the governor said he’s asked the Authority to trim waste and rectify past mismanagement. But he says it’s complicated, because if their revenues are too low, it could result in a downgrade of their bond rating.

“The bond rating has to be intact, otherwise we’ll have a different set of issues” Cuomo said in mid August.

Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, a Republican who represents portions of Schenectady and Saratoga, says Cuomo could do more to prevent the toll hike. “The governor’s the 900 pound gorilla,” Tedisco said.

Tedisco says Cuomo spoke up against a proposed $14 toll on a planned new Tappan Zee bridge. He says the governor could do the same for the truck toll proposal.

Governor Cuomo’s fellow Democrats in the Assembly are also now taking on the toll hike issue. The Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions on Wednesday afternoon called a hearing for Friday, and has invited the Thruway Authority’s Madison to testify. A spokeswoman for Committee Chair Assemblyman Jim Brennan says the proposed truck toll increases will be a key focus of the hearing, and thruway officials will be asked if there’s any way the steep toll increase can be mitigated or avoided altogether.

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