Tag Archives: New York State Thruway


7 Dec

Not unexpectedly, chairman of the New York State Thruway Authority Howard Milstein is doing for the Thruway exactly what he’s done for Niagara Falls under the auspices of his Niagara Falls Redevelopment, LLC

That is, nothing

In 2011, its revenue dropped by 1.1%, but its costs went up by 3.9%. Its operation is firmly stuck in the 1950s – so antiquated that it employs human beings to operate an automated ticket dispenser and hand toll tickets out to motorists. It is a caricature of idiotic work rules and redundancy. 

Governor Cuomo appointed Milstein to this post – is he pleased with how the Thruway is doing and what it’s done? Is anyone in the Albany delegation living west of Albany and within 30 – 40 miles of a Great Lakes sick of the fact that the state runs a 1950s-era toll road in 2012 that acts as a tax on motorists living within that geographic range?  I mean, legislators from the north have a freeway to get to Albany, those from the south have the free Taconic, and those from the Southern Tier have the free 86/17 and the I-88 to get to Albany. Legislators who live within 20 miles of the Thruway west of Albany should be taking that roadway’s cost and operation as if it was a discriminatory tax on their constituents. 

Enough is enough. 

The 1950s Called. They Want Their Toll Road Back

20 Jun

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. 

Dear Howard Milstein:

2 Jun

I want to thank you for taking time out from your busy land speculation schedule here in western New York to take the reins of the byzantine and anachronistic New York State Thruway Authority.

I don’t say it’s out-of-date because toll roads are yesterday’s news. Instead, I’m referring to the fact that EZ-Pass holders still have to queue up at the toll booths like it was 1955.

I realize that removing tolls from I-90 and I-87 is probably not on the table at this point, but as a frequent traveler up and down the entire stretch of the Thruway, perhaps the state could recognize that paying $22 to get from the Deegan to Ripley is a pretty big chunk of money when one takes free alternatives into consideration. Many other toll systems – largely not in the Northeastern US, but elsewhere – have implemented a system that recognizes the fact that automated toll collection obviates the need for queueing.

Here is an example of how it’s done in Florida. Cars with transponders continue along the roadway at highway speeds, while people paying cash detour to the booths.

Seriously, it’s insane that the Williamsville, Ripley, and Lackawanna tolls booths are all designed to make even people with EZ-Pass queue up. Why? What’s the reason? Quite evidently the technology can support toll collection at 65 MPH without slowing. During the summertime, the busier toll barriers can be backed up for miles, wasting fuel and time for people who just want to travel through this state.

The Toronto area’s private 407 highway is completely automated, where cars without transponders pay by mail, as overhead cameras snap its license plate and send you a bill.

I could go on about the fact that the rest areas are just glorified food courts with toilets, and that no one’s eaten Roy Rogers in 20 years. I could mention the fact that there’s a cruel irony that the free I-90 in Pennsylvania has a smooth surface while the surface on the New York portion just after the tolls is ripped up like a Buffalo side road in the springtime. I could even mention the fact that other states, like the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts, sell toll-related sponsorships to private corporations to help fund Turnpike operations there, helping to keep tolls down.

I think people wouldn’t be so peeved about paying the tolls if the privilege of holding an EZ-Pass transponder conveyed an actual benefit in time and fuel.

Furthermore, the idiotic way in which the exits are numbered should go. It’s silly that we have exits like “48A” because the Thruway tacked on a Pembroke exit between Batavia and Transit Road. The mile markers on the Thruway tick down the mileage from the New York City line. The exit numbers should follow that same pattern. It’s done in other states and helps people keep track of their progress, and makes it easier to add and subtract exits from the roadway.  I once wrote to the Thruway about this, and they replied that this couldn’t be done because the road follows I-87 and I-90. Seems to me this isn’t an impediment to the mile markers following that change.

Good luck to you in your new position, and I hope to see some activity on the properties you own in Niagara Falls sooner rather than later.

With regards,