Editor’s corner: Turnpike, Thruway are on similar fiscal road

Forty years ago, when the New York state Thruway was in its third decade of use, there was a belief among motorists that paying a toll to drive on Interstate 90 was temporary. At that time, U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan hailed an agreement by representatives of the Federal Highway Trust and state officials for funding assistance to maintain the highway.

A portion of that deal ultimately called for the elimination of tolls and the abolishment of the Thruway Authority in 1996. “New York’s dream of a toll-free state Thruway will at long last come true,” said Moynihan, who introduced the bill in Congress to make the agreement possible, according to an archived New York Times article from July 20, 1982.

Reality is starkly different today. Though the booths came down over the last two years, the tolls remain — and will become more expensive starting in January.

For the New York E-ZPass user, rates on the Thruway mainline are expected to increase 5% in 2024 to 4.7 cents per mile, and then by another 5% in 2027 to reach 4.9 cents per mile. Tolls on commercial drivers will increase proportionally to increases applied to passenger drivers.

Those costs will increase even more for those who are not tied to the current electronic system. Per-mile rates on the Thruway mainline would grow by 60 percent for non-NY E-ZPass holders and 41 percent for tolls by mail payers next year.

In a report issued in February, New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli cited flaws with the proposed increases. “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. Raising tolls should be the last option, and the Thruway has more work to do,” he wrote

DiNapoli’s 36-page assessment on the Thruway’s proposal notes some of the revenue problems for the authority come from cashless tolling issues — that have not produced cost savings or efficiencies while users face problems of erroneous bills and significant fines and penalties — as well as the COVID-19. In 2020, due to the pandemic that forced an economic slowdown, revenues were down 16.6%.

To the Authority’s credit, expenses — particularly those in terms of employee costs — have decreased. But keeping the highly traveled interstate — about 250 million vehicles per year — has growing costs. It comes from the snowplowing, construction and routine maintenance.

It is far from alone in its fiscal troubles when it comes to managing its roads. Pennsylvania’s Turnpike increased rates by 5% in January that were already more expensive than Thruway users pay.

A 2022 audit found the Turnpike authority had $104 million in uncollected tolls for 2020 and 2021 while its cost per mile to drive is about 16 cents — three times more than the cost on New York’s Interstate 90. Its debt also was reported to be $13.2 billion.

“Today, the Pennsylvania Turnpike has more debt than the entire state government of Pennsylvania, and the only way to pay it is to raise tolls,” Auditor General Timothy DeFoor said in a press release last September. “This is an unsustainable situation which highlights the need for innovative ideas and different solutions to rectify an issue that is decades in the making.”

In the end, the fees are — as usual — passed on to residents and businesses. That’s a rough road.

John D’Agostino is the editor of the Times Observer, The Post-Journal and OBSERVER in Dunkirk, N.Y. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 716-487-1111, ext. 253.


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