State thruway authority OKs plan to pursue toll rate hikes

Dec. 6—The toll rate for motorists who use the Grand Island bridges while traveling along the New York state thruway system won't increase next year.

However, officials with the state thruway authority are eyeing their first toll rate hike in 14 years starting in 2024.

During a meeting on Monday, members of the thruway authority's board of directors agreed to initiate a process that could lead to authorization sometime next year for a two-stage, system-wide toll hike that would include one hike in 2024 and another in 2027.

The proposed rate adjustment plan, which is subject to public hearings and final approval by the agency's board, calls for rates paid by E-ZPass users to increase by a total of 10% over a four-year period, with an initial 5% increase in 2024 and and a second 5% increase in 2027.

Pay-by-mail rates would also be increased to 75% percent higher than the E-ZPass rates.

Under the current toll schedule, out-of-state E-ZPass users are subject to a 15% differential and those who opt for tolls by mail have a 30% differential.

In addition, users of the Gov. Mario Cuomo Bridge, formerly the Tappan Zee Bridge, would see toll hikes of 50 cents per year between 2024 and 2027, with the final non-commuter rate being increased to $7.75 by 2027. Commuters get a 40% discount for using the twin-span that crosses the Hudson River between Tarrytown and Nyack, 20 miles north of New York City.

Authority officials say toll rate hikes are needed to fund future capital projects, including bridge and other infrastructure maintenance, meet debt obligations and continue to provide safe and reliable service to motorists.

The thruway authority is considering an $889.6 million budget for next year, which the agency's Chief Financial Officer Matt Howard said would be $8.4 million, or .09%, below the current year's spending plan.

Howard said the 2023 budget covers 1,955 positions, or nine more than 2022. Howard noted that, since 2020, the authority has reduced its overall workforce by 746 positions, or 28 percent. He said the bulk of those reductions came during a downsizing in 2013 and when the authority converted to a statewide cashless tolling system in 2020.

Since 2010, Howard said the authority's operating budget has increased by 1.7% year over year. He added that included recent years when toll revenues decreased significantly amid travel reductions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Howard said the proposed toll adjustments stem from long-term budget projections that suggest maintaining tolls at current rates would result in budget shortfalls of $2.8 million in 2024 and $117 million by 2026. Howard said the projections suggest maintaining the current toll levels would produce a budget gap of $250 million by 2031.

Howard said additional revenues will be needed moving forward to cover authority expenses not only for operation but for debt service and capital projects.

"We see that, beginning in 2024, there's a situation where our current toll rates structure fails to produce sufficient revenues to meet these needs," he said.

On Monday, the board unanimously voted to allow the authority's outgoing Executive Director Matthew Driscoll to proceed with the "necessary actions" implement the proposed toll rate adjustments.

Part of the process will include holding public hearings starting next year at various locations across the state. A formal vote on the proposed toll adjustments would take place sometime next year after public comments have been solicited.

Members of the authority's board and staff noted that the move has been prompted, at least in part, by revenue reductions that the statewide system experienced during the pandemic.

"Those lost revenues from COVID are gone forever. We're not going to make that up," said Joanne Mahoney, the thruway authority's board chair.

Although the federal government under the Biden administration has authorized billions of dollars in spending for road repairs, bridge reconstruction and other infrastructure work, the money is earmarked for state and local governments and thruway authority officials noted that their agency cannot avail itself of that money.