ALBANY — State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli is hesitant about the New York State Thruway Authority’s latest tolling proposal.
In a recently released 36-page report, the state’s fiscal watchdog recommended addressing other financial woes before upping the E-Z Pass rate 5% and Toll-By-Mail rate 75% come 2024.
“Raising tolls should be the last option, and the Thruway has more work to do,” DiNapoli said in a statement.
DiNapoli blamed the groups’ fiscal stress on the COVID-19 pandemic, the construction of the Gov. Mario Cuomo Bridge and management of debt, which is projected to grow $419 million by 2031.
The office of the state comptroller (OSC) suggested fixing cashless tolling mishaps — invalid collection amounts issued under the new system — while finding ways to generate more money from federal coffers, as well as from service areas, gas stations and special permits.
His office began crafting the report when the NYSTA Board of Directors introduced a proposal to begin the multi-year rate increase process more than two months ago, according to an OSC spokesperson. Public hearings are expected throughout the year before a final vote at year’s end.
“The Thruway Authority’s toll increase proposal comes at a time of extraordinary challenges for New Yorkers who are faced with rising costs for everything from food to shelter to gas,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “The Thruway should be more transparent with the public and disclose critical information, and identify and put in place all possible cost-savings and alternative revenue actions to minimize costs to drivers.”
This would be the first systemwide toll increase in 14 years. NYSTA dropped a proposed system increase for large vehicles back in 2012 following blowback from OSC and groups like the Trucking Association of New York.
For NYSTA, the new increase would serve as a means of keeping up with the inflation-ballooned cost of upgrading deteriorating bridges and other expenses. NYSTA expects to fund the $1.9 billion cost for its four-year capital program. COVID-19 led to a projected budget gap of $240 million. So far, traffic has boosted revenue projections above expectations with last year’s intake — however, not enough to make up for losses.
Under the new toll, NYSTA would receive $1,141,900,000 by 2031, a boost of $274.8 million. Tolls would increase an additional 5% in 2027.
Authority spokesperson Jennifer Givner said in a statement that the increase would keep the Thruway “one of the safest highways in the nation,” while avoiding non-users footing the bill. Operating budgets have averaged growth below 2% over the last 14 years.
“We believe this modest proposal will begin to raise additional revenue to support the long-term financial needs of New York’s main transportation corridor and engine for economic activity,” Givner said in a statement. “We would be happy to discuss this with the Office of the State Comptroller at any time.”
Tolling authorities are eligible for federal COVID-19 relief dollars, according to OSC. Givner wrote that the office hasn’t received any money of the like.
State Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, in response to the OSC report, urged the upper chamber’s transportation committee to subpoena NYSTA Chair Joanne M. Mahoney for a hearing. He and Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, have called on the authority to drop the proposal.
“The Thruway Authority should immediately rescind their egregious toll hike because they have maxed out the taxpayer credit card and clearly are mismanaging taxpayer dollars to an alarming degree,” Tedisco said in a statement.
Tedisco voted to keep NYSTA as a tolling authority in the early 1990s, but his office has previously justified the move by maintaining that the now-state senator was under the impression that the fee would eventually disappear.
Santabarbara has expressed sharp criticism against the NYSTA in recent months, carrying an online petition back in early December against the fee increase and demanding OSC to launch an extensive audit of NYSTA.
Not an audit, OSC compiled existing information for the report. DiNapoli has been conducting an audit of the cashless tolling system, which is slated for release at some point during the first half of this year.
“Just as past audits of the Thruway Authority found consistent issues with the Thruway Authority’s spending practices and lack of long-term financial planning, this report is no different — which is the first since the conversion to cashless tolling was completed,” Santabarbara said in a statement.
More than 744 million cashing tolling transactions were recorded since November 2020. Since then, NYSTA has increased signage around gantries and reoriented billing materials to inform travelers of alternatives to avoiding hefty fees.
Cashless tolling infrastructure and equipment cost $552.8 million by the end of 2021. During the same year, the cost of running the mail toll program spiked
The shift away from toll booths resulted in a collective nine-year net negative of 1,433 and $59.7 million in savings. Meanwhile, compensation for high-earners has increased, OSC found in its report.
New York Construction Materials Association President Ron Epstein contended that the last administration rushed cashless tolling and used NYSTA for its own financial struggles.
“I don’t disagree with the comptroller’s set, but it’s kind of a diversion from the real issue, which is that the conditions on the Thruway have steadily declined,” Epstein told the Daily Gazette. “And that is a result of decisions that were made prior to the Hochul administration.”
Past governors have used public authorities as a vehicle for “backdoor borrowing,” a means of driving out debt from state finances. Under the Cuomo administration, NYSTA was used for more than $5 billion in outstanding debt.
The state contributed $2.3 billion for the Gov. Mario Cuomo bridge between 2012 and 2021. NYSTA poured in $3.8 billion in the same timeframe and expects to invest $234 million in the structure between 2024 and 2027.
On top of highway investments, NYSTA has also owned the New York State Canal Corporation since 2017. Outlying roads like Interstate 88 and the Adirondack Northway are maintained by the state-funded Department of Transportation.
“The Thruway Authority is the modern-day version of the Erie Canal,” said Epstein. “It connects all of these millions of businesses in New York to the global economy and the role of the Thruway as a conduit for moving commerce within every corner of the state — I don’t believe it’s really understood or appreciated.”
Tyler A. McNeil can be reached at 518-395-3047 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TylerAMcNeil.