The 1950s Called. They Want Their Toll Road Back

According to its 2011 annual report, the New York State Thruway Authority’s toll revenue decreased by $7.1 million, or 1.1% from the previous year. Expenses, however, increased by $17.1 million, or 3.9%. Its results the year before were a bit better, with slightly higher revenue versus 2009 and a smaller increase in expenses, despite divesting itself of I-84 maintenance. 

The Authority is now desperate for a dramatic toll increase. A few weeks ago, it proposed a 45% increase on tolls for commercial trucks. The toll for a truck with three or more axles would increase from $88 to $127 to travel from New York City to Buffalo. 

Makes sense. Charge almost 50% higher tolls on the vehicles that deliver stuff to people, and the working people who drive them. 

It costs close to $20 to drive your car from the Major Deegan to the I-90/I-290 interchange. For the privilege, you can eat at some of the only Roy Rogerses in New York State

Recently, both Moody’s and S&P changed their outlook on the Thruway Authority to negative. It suggested that the Authority would need to raise tolls by more than 45% on trucks to adequately service its existing debt, before we get to the $5 billion plan to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge. Yet an increase in tolls would result in a likely change in customer behavior; i.e., people and trucks will seek alternate routes. 

The conservative Manhattan Institute points out that, in a tough economy, toll road usage and revenue have dropped in Spain, France, and Italy, which rely heavily on pay-as-you-go toll highways. Given that the I-80 through Pennsylvania and Route 17 / I-86 through the Catskills and Southern Tier offer up toll-free alternatives for traffic making the East-West trip within reasonably close proximity to the Thruway. If tolls go up by half, vehicles would probably seek to minimize the time they spend on the pay road. 

Legislators don’t care. Their cost to drive to Albany for session is reimbursed. The Thruway doesn’t care – they get free EZ-Passes. The entire operation is an anachronism. It’s poorly run, poorly maintained, expensive, and costs a lot to administer.  

Photo by g-trieber @ Flickr.com

Photo by g-trieber @ Flickr.com

The state DOT, which manages not just highways, but airports, seaports, and some public transportation, has an annual budget of $9.6 billion. The Thruway Authority, which manages the Thruway and Erie Canal, has an annual budget of over a billion dollars, and a little over half of its money is collected through tolls.

The obvious solution is abolition of the bloated, inefficient Thruway Authority. The problem is – if you incorporate it into the State DOT, it will cost money to maintain and service, and the money has to come from somewhere. Most likely, your pocket through gas tax hikes or similar. The nice thing about tolls is that it’s a pay-per-use system. But there’s another way.

If tolls are to be maintained, the Thruway could take a hint from Toronto’s 407 and make toll collection something that’s done at highway speeds. However, that’s costly, and cars without a transponder pay an extra fee for the license-plate-photograph privilege. Instead, many European countries share the cost burden of highway maintenance through sales of stickers.

For tourists, we could follow the Austrian model where €8 buys you 10 days of unlimited travel on that country’s highways. Another possibility would be to follow the Swiss model, where SFr 40 buys you a year’s worth of travel on that country’s impeccably maintained Autobahnen, Autostrade, and Autoroutes.

Police spot checks look for scofflaws. If caught without a vignette, the Swiss charge you a SFr 200 fine, plus the cost of a vignette. The Austrians will fine you €120 on the spot.  Given that it now costs almost $20 to get from the Major Deegan to the PA line, a $10 sticker for 10 days’ worth of highway travel is a bargain. So is $40 for the entire year. Vignettes could be sold at welcome centers entering New York or leaving bordering states. They could be sold online, in advance, or, as they are in Hungary, even via cell phone text message. No more toll barriers, no more toll collectors.

Hungary: Buy vignette by mobile phone

The point here is that the roads need to be paid for, and it makes sense for the people using them to pay for them. People could avoid buying the stickers by using secondary roads, so it’s completely optional. We could abolish not only the entire Thruway Authority, but most of its associated, dedicated toll-collecting costs. We could get rid of its obnoxious exclusive contracts with towing and wrecker services on the Thruway, and get rid of EZ-Pass and its associated costs for passenger vehicles.

It’s time for the Thruway to modernize, streamline its operations, stop gouging travelers, and think differently. 

7 comments

  • I’ve always been impressed in the Thruway Authority’s ability to create and maintain one of the ugliest (and boring, and therefore dangerous) roads in New York State for a mere billion dollars.  Well done!

  • Sell it off. 🙂
    The Dulles Greenway is a great example.

  • Every toll road I’ve driven on with a ticket system employs machines that spit out the ticket when you enter the road.  Every road, that is, except for the New York Thruway, where they’re passed out by humans.  The practice is supported by some who claim that they offer directions to confused drivers, but how lost can one get on one road in one direction?   Does the guy giving out tickets at the Williamsville barrier know how to get to the State Fairgrounds in Syracuse, or Grandma’s house in Poughkeepsie?  Wouldn’t offering directions be more appropriate for the toll takers closer to the destination, who generally live close to the exits where they work?

    If there’s a need to cut the Thruway budget, the first thing that should go is the job of the human toll ticket passer-outer.

  • > For the privilege, you can eat at some of the only Roy Rogerses in New York State.

    A few years ago, there was still a Rax at a rest area on the Indiana Toll Road.

    Seems like toll roads are where fast food chains go to die.

  • Here’s a brilliant solution, courtesy of our old friend H. McCarthy Gipson: http://www.dailyfreeman.com/articles/2012/06/19/news/doc4fe050944400d063703001.txt 

    • Charge them, then pay it back later? WTF? Who the hell comes up with THAT as the best way they can think of to do things? Oh, a NYS bureaucrat. Ye Gods.

      I never take the Thruway anywhere outside the Buffalo area anymore. Going to Rochester? I go Rt 20 (which is nice) or 20-A (which I think is a wonderful drive — I love that road, especially in fall). Going to Erie? Again, 20…or 5. Yeah, I get places ten to fifteen minutes later than I would have…but I enjoy the time in the car more. And I don’t give NYS any more dollars than they already have to maintain this idiotic governmental body and its massive, 1957-style bloat.

  • I say shut it down. 

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