By Tyler A. McNeil/The Leaader-Herald
ALBANY — The New York State Thruway Authority formally launched the year-long process of gathering public feedback on a proposed 2024 toll increase before putting it up for a final vote.
NYSTA officials at a Monday board meeting pushed forward the first step in upping the fee for E-ZPass users 5% and 75% for tolls by mail. The hike proposal, which would be the first systemwide adjustment in 14 years, has faced blowback from lawmakers since the agenda was released last week.
“This is safety,” said NYSTA Board of Directors Chairwoman Joanne Mahoney during the meeting. “This is the driving public and for me, you know, it’s very easy to say, ‘no, we don’t want toll increases,’ but I haven’t heard any other solutions.”
The toll rate will be frozen throughout 2023.
Anticipated are three public meetings on the matter across the state, as well as a public comment period, both required per state law. Board members repeatedly characterized the forthcoming process as “transparent.”
The board’s proposed increase is a response to authority infrastructure needs and pandemic-induced financial woes.
“If people have a solution other than [the toll increase], we will certainly listen to that,” Mahoney said. “But this road is funded by the people who use the road. It’s not a taxpayer-funded road and I think there’s still a big misunderstanding in the public about that.”
In 2020, toll revenue declined by 17% ($125 million) — seven times greater than any decline experienced within the last 40 years, according to NYSTA. This pandemic slump resulted in a $240 million revenue shortfall prior 2020 to 2025 projections.
Operating revenues are above the group’s 2022 budget target by 3%. NYSTA accrued $673 million between September of last year and 2022, an annual increase of 8%. This includes $612 million in toll revenue amid a 3.9% traffic increase.
Revenue is expected to grow by $17 million in the 2023 budget, albeit “there’s still a gap between, you know, what we’re projecting today versus what we did prior to COVID,” said NYSTA Chief Financial Officer Matt Howard.
Projected revenue demands will hit $250 million by 2031. Some $800 million needed for bridge repairs within the next 10 years is not supported by the agency’s current cash flow. About 80% of the Thruway’s foundation dates back to original projects between 1949 and 1960.
Howard said that NYSTA has pursued “every avenue” to limit expenses for capital projects, daily operations and debt services. (NYSTA abandoned a toll increase for large trucks in 2012, an effort to pay for the damage caused by such vehicles). The last toll hike was 2010, when it was increased 5% for E-ZPass customers and 45% for cash paying drivers. Cashless polling went into effect 2020.
“Taking these actions has allowed us to extend the timeframe between increases,” said Howard. “But unfortunately, that can’t continue indefinitely.”
The toll by mail increase is expected to impact 26% of drivers.
Also included in the proposal is a $5.75 to $7.75 three-year increase on the downstate Mario Cuomo Bridge.
State Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, tweeted an hour ahead of the session: “As record inflation continues to harm millions of NY’ers this holiday season, a group of unelected Albany bureaucrats is meeting today to propose a statewide Thruway toll hike.”
The increase has also received criticism from local Assemblymen Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, and Robert Smullen, R-Meco, who vowed to fight the measure.
In a press release, state Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, a co-sponsor of bi-partisan legislation to grant the state Legislature authority over toll hike approvals, likened NYSTA’s recent action to a “giant lump of coal under the Christmas tree in the form of higher Thruway tolls.”
NYSTA has boasted that the proposed fee is still lower per mile than a number of high traffic thruway systems, including the Garden State Parkway and Pennsylvania Turnpike.
For the entire length of the system — the longest toll road in the country — the state Thruway ranks no. 8 in cost.
Tyler A. McNeil can be reached at 518-527-7659 or at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TylerAMcNeil