Taking its toll: The Thruway Authority hears testimony from commuters

By Joe Kuhn

Last Tuesday The New York State Thruway Authority held the first meeting of its newly formed Toll Advisory Panel. The group has been tasked with reviewing toll rates, potential resident and commuter discount programs and commercial vehicle rates on the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. During their initial meeting the panel heard testimony from commuters, local politicians, and concerned residents who offered their perspective on potential toll adjustments. Though Governor Cuomo previously announced that the tolls are frozen through at least 2020, the Thruway Authority may soon alter the rates for the millions of commuters that depend on the bridge.

First to address the panel was state Assemblyman David Buchwald. While he acknowledged the necessity of toll adjustments, the assemblyman vocally advocated for commuter discounts, arguing that those who use the bridge daily deserve a reprieve from any possible toll increase. Buchwald also urged the Thruway Authority to act transparently if they chose to increase the toll. “If the bridge toll is to be increased, the public deserves to know exactly how that relates to paying for the costs of the new bridge” said the representative. “I don’t think it is appropriate to meaningfully raise tolls without everyone understanding the long term financial situation.

Wendy Kroner, a Rockland resident who commutes daily to Westchester for her job, expressed frustration that the panel would consider raising tolls while so many commuters are able to “doge” tolls. Mrs. Kroner said that she had observed a number of travelers who had painted over their license plates so that cameras responsible for recording and processing tolls were unable to do so. She urged the panel to crack down on that behavior before considering any kind of fair increase and also suggested implementing a “tax break” for regular commuters. John Cooney Jr., the executive director of the Construction Industry Council of Westchester and the Hudson Valley, vehemently disagreed. Cooney, whose organization represents the labor unions responsible for maintaining the bridge, believes a toll increase is completely necessary. He argued that the current fair is not meeting the cost of maintaining the bridge, which is funded entirely by tolls and receives no tax revenue. The CIC maintains that the only fair and feasible way to continue operation is some sort of price adjustment.

Assemblyman Tom Abinanti was critical of the panel during his remarks, first criticizing their choice in scheduling. “Given the importance of the discussion, I am really disappointed that the hearings are in the middle of the summer with one week’s notice and limited to only six hours” he began. Abinanti went on to say that commuters using the bridge were “subsiding” the rest of the state thruway system as bridge tolls are often used to fund repairs all along the throughway. The Assemblyman called the practice unfair stating “I know of no other Thruway project where the costs are paid for by raising tolls in one location”. He suggested a more “equitable” system where each region of the thruway pays for its own improvements with its own tolls, instead of using bridge toll money all across the state.

The hearings are scheduled to continue on Thursday at Nyack’s time hotel from 4:30 to 7:30.