ALBANY – A member of the Thruway Authority board from Buffalo accused her agency Tuesday of acting under a cloak of secrecy, even with its board of directors, and trying to push through a controversial toll hike plan that may not be needed.
“I’m beginning to think that if the 45 percent [toll hike] is needed, why are we playing games with it? I’m beginning to think that 45 percent is not a figure we need,’’ said an angry Donna Luh, vice chairwoman of the Thruway Authority board, in an interview with The Buffalo News.
The rare criticism during the Cuomo era of a state board directed from within came after Thruway officials – again without reason and with only hours’ notice – postponed for the second time in four days a board meeting when a toll increase up to 45 percent was set to be considered.
“I’m feeling totally frustrated,’’ said Luh, a Depew resident nominated to the board in 2008 by then-Gov. David A. Paterson.
Thruway Authority Executive Director Thomas J. Madison, although not directly addressing Luh’s complaints, said more time was need to evaluate the toll hike proposal.
“The proposed toll increase for trucks is a complex issue that requires more evaluation before it is presented to the board to consider,” he said. “The Thruway is looking at a number of options and doing extensive research, and it will continue to do this due diligence work before another meeting is called and a recommendation is made.”
Luh said the staff of the agency, as well as Chairman Howard Milstein, has declined to share any details about whether the agency is sticking with its first proposal to raise tolls on trucks by 45 percent or if authority officials have found an alternative plan. The 45 percent plan has been sharply opposed by business groups as a $90 million-a-year tax hit on highway commerce – a cost they say will be passed on to consumers during a time of a recovering economy and high unemployment in New York.
If there’s been a change in the original 45 percent plan, Luh said, “that has not been shared’’ with the board.
Luh also joined critics who say the agency has mishandled not just the broader toll issue but basic transparency, such as failing to post the board’s agenda on the Thruway’s website. Some, but not all, state agencies release details in advance of board meetings about items to be considered during policy sessions. She characterized as “terrible’’ the practice of the Thruway’s not posting detailed information about its board meetings.
The toll hike proposal has two purposes: to raise $90 million in additional money for the agency and also to convince future bond investors that the agency is financially healthy and should get good bond ratings from Wall Street firms when it borrows money for a $5 billion downstate bridge project that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is pushing.
“I can only speak for myself, but I’m feeling totally frustrated,’’ Luh said Tuesday of the postponed meetings.
She said a fellow board member reached out to Milstein on Monday morning to confirm Tuesday’s session was still on. The plug was not pulled on the meeting until after 9 p.m. Monday. “I thought, ‘Are you kidding?’ What are they doing? If things are not in line [with the toll plan], why keep scheduling meetings when everything is not resolved?’’ Luh said.
Does she share the public’s frustration with the toll rate process?
“Absolutely,” Luh said. “How do you defend something like this?”
Luh said the board chairman has final say over when meetings are held or postponed and what items go on the agenda.
A frustrated Luh suggested officials may be taking some Thruway board members for granted.
“They can maybe decide the agenda, the date and the location, but it still takes a majority of the board to pass something. You still need our votes,’’ said Luh, who owns a consulting firm and served for seven years as airport project coordinator at the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.
Critics have pushed the board to consider cutting agency expenses before going to consumers for a toll increase.
Business groups – from the New York State Motor Truck Association to Unshackle Upstate – have accused the agency of ignoring their ideas.
Luh said she did not know if the ideas have been ignored because information about any alternative plans has not been provided to board members.
“If we’re wavering so much and meetings are on and off, how serious are we, and how can we defend that figure?’’ Luh said of the 45 percent toll hike that was roundly condemned in public hearings, including in Buffalo, over the summer.
Brian Sampson, executive director of Unshackle Upstate, said the decision to postpone two board meetings since Friday “has clearly demonstrated the lack of transparency and accountability that has plagued the authority for decades.’’
“How are we to believe that the Thruway Authority is ready to act in the best interest of toll-payers when they can’t even conduct a standard board meeting?’’ Sampson said in calling for a forensic audit of the agency.
The proposed toll hike on large trucks was unveiled in May. It has been criticized by trucking companies – who say some members, such as furniture and dairy operations, will face increased tolls of as much as $18,000 a month – and by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, as well as lawmakers in both parties.
The toll hike plan has reopened old wounds: Critics say it again shines a light on the need to get rid of expensive non-Thruway operations – a free expressway in Westchester County and the state’s 500-mile canal system – that the agency was forced to pick up during an early 1990s budget-balancing maneuver by then-Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.
Thruway tolls in 2005 were raised 25 percent on passenger vehicles and 35 percent for commercial users. Cash tolls went up 10 percent in 2008. Two annual 5 percent hikes were imposed in 2009 and 2010.