B U F F A L O N E W S
ALBANY — Thruway drivers could see toll hikes of up to 5 percent annually until 2011, while discounts for E-ZPass customers are reduced or eliminated under a plan the Thruway Authority is likely to approve next month, officials said Monday.
The increases are intended to raise $80 million each year to offset lower-than-expected toll revenues, which the agency says are needed to pay for an ambitious, multiyear construction plan along the 426-mile highway system from New York City to Buffalo.
Officials say toll revenues have fallen well below estimates made when a $2.7 billion construction program was put together two years ago. They blamed the drop-off in tolls on higher gasoline prices, which have cut into the travel plans of some drivers, mostly those taking discretionary trips.
The plan being eyed would phase-in a toll increase for cash customers of up to 20 percent over the next four years beginning sometime next year. It could also cut back discounts now given to E-ZPass users or those who enroll in special commuter discount programs. Officials said tolls on the Grand Island bridges would also rise, though not for residents participating in the E-ZPass program. Other plans being considered would increase the number of trips a commuter would have to take in a month to qualify for a discount.
All of this is on top of a 10 percent increase in tolls coming Jan. 6 for the Thruway’s cash customers as part of a toll hike program enacted just two years ago.
Instead of raising tolls, critics say the agency should make a strong pitch to turn back to the state the Thruway’s responsibility to pay for the operations of the state’s canal system. A 1992 fiscal gimmick, moving the canal off the state’s general fund and over to the Thruway’s budget saves the state about $80 million annually — which, coincidentally, is the amount Thruway officials say they are looking at in yearly deficits.
“That’s not a function of the Thruway,” William Joyce, president of the New York State Motor Truck Association, said of the agency paying for the 524-mile canal system.
Michael Fleischer, executive director of the Thruway Authority, said when a big construction program was approved a couple of years ago, experts projected a 2.3 percent annual growth in traffic along the highway. This year, though, traffic is flat at about 250 million trips and is only expected to grow between 1.2 percent and 1.5 percent the next two years.
The Thruway head said the agency is looking to phase in any toll increases into a series of annual hikes between 2008 and 2011. That way, he said, “if traffic returns or something else happens to change our financial condition we can defer our [toll] action.”
With traffic volume down, Fleischer said the agency has no alternative but to raise revenues in other ways.
The money the agency gets in toll revenues allows it to borrow on the market to pay for its $2.7 billion construction program, which includes a number of upgrades, such as high-speed toll lanes in the Buffalo area.
The agency raised tolls 25 percent for passengers in 2005, with a 10 percent discount for E-ZPass users and 35 percent for commercial drivers, with a 5 percent discount for E-ZPass customers.
Fleischer said the Thruway, which has a budget of about $1 billion, has been hit like other toll roads. Trucking companies and commuters are using the highway system as often as ever, but others, especially during the summer months, cut back on pleasure trips, especially when gasoline prices fluctuated.
The agency expects to end this year in the black. It was expecting to get $150 million in additional revenues from the 2005 toll hikes but now expects about $15 million less than that because of higher gasoline prices cutting into Thruway travel. It is the first time the Thruway has experienced no growth in traffic volume since 1981.
Joyce said that while some toll increases will be passed along to customers — which, eventually, get passed along to consumers — not all trucking companies can do that because they are locked into multiple-year contracts with shipping clients.
Sensitive to the expected criticism coming their way, Thruway officials said they have cut 453 full-time positions since 1995.