EDITORIAL: Toll hike, but not this one

HONK IF YOU WANT to pay higher tolls on the Thruway. Hear that? I think it’s what songwriter Paul Simon called the sound of silence.

Not that we have a choice. Unlike state government agencies, the New York State Thruway Authority has considerable independence. The chairman and the board members are appointed by the governor and approved by the state Senate, but because the Thruway doesn’t use any tax money it can operate as the board sees fit.

State authorities were created as a way to manage government functions free from political influence. But in recent weeks we’ve seen an effort by Republican lawmakers trying, quite openly, to convince the Thruway not to increase the tolls that big rigs pay. Assemblymen Pete Lopez and Steve McLaughlin represent different parts of Columbia County and they and their colleagues say the proposed 45% increase will pile an extra cost on businesses when businesses are struggling.

The Thruway Authority says it needs the money to get its fiscal house in order after some bad decisions in past years, when tolls were kept unreasonably low. And the authority says it’s only fair that big trucks pay more.

Fairness matters in this squabble, because no matter what happens we’re all going to pay more. Even if you don’t drive or never venture onto the 570 miles of roads in the Thruway system–more than 20 of which pass through northern Columbia County–you’ll be affected. The toll will hit all the big trucks, the ones with three or more axles. That’s why a regional supermarket chain like Price Chopper is fighting the increase. A 45% toll hike means higher costs for delivering food. If you eat only locally grown produce, then you’re in luck… unless the farmers you buy from use supplies delivered by a big rig, which many do.

Commercial traffic accounts for only 10% of all vehicles on the Thruway, but the Thruway Authority cites estimates that a typical large truck with a legal load puts about the same amount of “wear and tear” on the road as 9,600 passenger cars. That’s why trucks should pay more to offset the damage they do.

The Thruway is a bargain for truckers, too, according to the Thruway Authority. Measured by “cents per mile” it costs big trucks about 24 cents/mile to use the Thruway. The Massachusetts Turnpike is cheaper–less than 17 cents per mile. But the Jersey Turnpike soaks drivers for at a rate of 44 cents per mile, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike costs over 34 cents per mile. What a coincidence! Pennsylvania’s rate is just what the Thruway rate will be if the 45% increase takes effect.

Once you get past the election season rhetoric, it seems evident that the driving force behind the increase, according to the Thruway’s own study, is its poor money management practices in the past. Thruway tolls stayed the same for 17 years between 1988 and 2005. Did your cost of living hold steady over all those years? More recently, the board took on $860 million of short term debt with no reasonable plan for repayment.

And here’s something to consider: If the Thruway Authority doesn’t straighten out its short-term debt soon, that failure could affect the financing needed for the authority’s multi-billion replacement of the decrepit Tappan Zee Bridge between Rockland and Westchester counties.

The new leadership of the Thruway Authority appointed by Governor Cuomo has acted in what appears to be a transparent and energetic manner, releasing reports critical of the authority’s past practices and developing a plan to address immediate needs. But placing the whole burden all at once big truck tolls is a shortsighted remedy.

All types of drivers benefit from the Thruway, which means that no kind of car or truck should be arbitrarily exempt from a toll hike. Instead, have vehicles causing the greatest wear pay the largest share of the hike, not all of it. Any other approach is kind of insulting. After all, did the Thruway Authority really think the public wouldn’t grasp the connection between higher tolls and higher prices we’ll pay for the goods trucks bring us?

The Thruway Authority’s financial problems were years in the making. It will take time and resolve to fix them. The place to start is with a fair plan for shared discomfort at the tollbooth. Anything else is just clumsy politics, something the Thruway Authority is supposed to avoid.

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