ALBANY – The Thruway Authority postponed its board meeting on Friday, just two hours before it was set to hike tolls.
The postponement occurred following criticism that the Cuomo administration was attempting to bury the controversial fee hike amid a busy week for news organizations consumed with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the elections.
An agency spokesman would not provide a reason for the decision to delay the meeting until Tuesday, when the board is expected to consider the proposal for a 45 percent increase on truck tolls.
The administration has been under intense pressure from business interests not to raise the tolls at a time when the state’s economy is still recovering and its unemployment rate is among the nation’s highest.
While Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said the toll increase is needed to keep the agency solvent, business interests, as well as State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, have insisted companies will have to pass along the $90 million in higher tolls to consumers through higher costs on everything from food to furniture to clothing.
And though state officials originally said in May that the toll increase had nothing to do with the governor’s push to build a new $5 billion Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River, they later acknowledged the new boost in toll revenues will make Wall Street bond rating agencies more receptive to help keep that project’s borrowing costs – and tolls – lower.
While Thruway officials insist mismanagement by previous gubernatorial administrations contributed to the need for a toll hike, critics say the public authority has not done enough to trim its own expenses.
Moreover, highway drivers continue to pay for maintenance and other costs of a non-Thruway highway in Westchester County and the state’s money-losing canal system. That is part of an early-1990s fiscal gimmick to help balance the state’s general fund pushed by the current governor’s father, former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.
One trade group said the agency is probably only delaying the bad news until next week.
“We are pessimistic just because of the conversations we’ve had with them. We really didn’t get an indication that they were seriously looking at any other alternatives,’’ said Kendra Adams, executive director of the New York State Motor Truck Association, which represents 800 trucking companies.
Her group’s members say a 45 percent toll hike would cripple some firms. One company with a single truck would pay $1,500 more per year in tolls under the hike plan, while a furniture company said the increase would add up to $18,000 a month in higher tolls, she said.
Thruway officials have said large trucks are targeted because they cause more damage to the highway system’s roads and therefore should be singled out for the toll hike. Industry groups say the agency’s information on truck damage to roads is outdated.
The administration has avoided imposing a toll hike on all users, which some trucking companies have said would be fairer than a 45 percent hit on one sector of the economy.
In 2005, Thruway tolls were raised 25 percent on passenger vehicles and 35 percent for commercial users. Cash tolls went up 10 percent in 2008. Also in 2008, two annual 5 percent hikes were imposed – taking effect in 2009 and 2010.