Santabarbara calls for Thruway audit following toll hike proposal

PHOTOGRAPHER:

FILE – Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara in October

ROTTERDAM ⁠— Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, has called for an audit of the New York State Thruway Authority following the start of a year-long toll hike proposal review.

Santabarbara, a fierce opponent of the recently released proposal to up toll costs 5% for E-ZPass users and 75% for other drivers come 2024, expressed skepticism towards NYSTA’s budget woes in a letter to state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

NYSTA finances are currently audited independently.

“With the current rate hike proposal now subject to public hearings, an updated audit will provide the needed oversight to ensure the Authority is collecting and spending toll dollars in a responsible manner,” Santabarbara said in a statement.”

At a NYSTA Board of Directors meeting Monday, officials said that the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic led to a 17% revenue shortfall, falling behind 2020 to 2025 revenue projections by $240 million.

While the annual cash flow this year is higher than expected and traffic is up, NYSTA is still falling behind expectations. The current toll rate doesn’t support the roughly $800 million needed for bridge repairs, NYSTA has previously reported.

NYSTA also plans to increase tolls on the Mario Cuomo Bridge from $5.75 to $7.75, Altogether, this would be the first systemwide toll hike in 14 years. Another 5% E-ZPass increase would be expected in 2024.

A NYSTA spokesperson declined to comment on Santabarbara’s recent statement. The Comptroller’s Office hasn’t immediately responded to a request for comment.

When cashless tolling was enacted in 2020, Santabarbara was under the impression that the system, which required phasing out toll worker positions, “would serve as a long-term cost-saving measure that those savings would be passed down to toll payers,” the Democratic lawmaker wrote in a statement. “Now, while families are still being hit hard by inflation and the rising cost of goods and services, increasing Thruway tolls will further burden hardworking families.

Ron Epstein, New York Construction Materials Association president and former state Department of Transportation official, told The Daily Gazette that he respects Santabarbara’s opinion on the matter, but the Thruway, among many entities, is acting financially responsible in response to the problems of inflation and aging infrastructure.

Cashless tolling, Epstein added, doesn’t offset capital project expenses. The cost of steel has shot up 95% since NYSTA last approved a toll hike.

“Cashless tolling is an efficiency, right?” Epstein said. “It allows the authority to collect the tolls more effectively, but it is, I’m trying to use the right word ⁠— it is apples and bowling balls for a lack of a good term to use for the reason that you can’t say there’s a one-to-one relationship.”

Santabarbara also pointed to payroll increases across NYSTA as cause for concern, citing data from SeeThroughNy.com. NYSTA’s highest earning officials are Project Director Jamey Barbas ($399,055), Bridge Maintenance Supervisor Fabio Amendola ($227,802) and Executive Director Matt Driscoll ($204,263), who formally announced his retirement earlier this month.

Public authorities are corporate entities managed through a blend of private and public control. NYSTA isn’t funded through state or federal taxes, relying significantly on toll revenue to fund the 570-mile, limited-access highway system.

In a call for a public hearing on the toll hike proposal, state Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, described NYSTA officials as “un-elected, faceless bureaucrats.” Tedisco’s office characterized the proposal as a tax on low- to middle-income earners.

“The Senate must hold a public hearing on the proposed Thruway toll hike so we can ask questions of the Thruway Authority as well as get feedback from all parties who could be impacted by the increase including motorists, truckers, and our business community,” Tedisco said.

The senior Republican lawmaker pointed out that NYSTA originally planned to phase out tolling by 1996. Late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan pushed for the federal government to eventually take over the system and get rid of the tolls. That didn’t happen. 

“They reneged on that promise and now want to increase tolls yet again,” said Tedisco in a release.

Following recommendations from an advisory council on the matter in 1991, members of the state Legislature the next year, including then-Assemblyman Tedisco, voted to keep NYSTA as a tolling authority. Tedisco spokesperson Adam Kramer said Tedisco OK’d the bill because the “promise was there that tolls would be lifted” by the millennium.

A small fraction of Thruway revenue comes from permits and concessions at rest stops, NYSTA said.

Tyler A. McNeil can be reached at 518-527-7659 or at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TylerAMcNeil

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