ALBANY – Thruway officials say there will not be an election-year toll increase across the 570-mile system.
But next year? That’s a whole different situation.
It is “fair to say” that there will be “toll adjustments” on the highway, Thruway Executive Director Thomas Madison said Wednesday.
“Our revenue needs are significant, and they grow,” Madison told a state panel at the Capitol.
On Wednesday night, Madison issued a written clarification to his earlier public comments. He said his comments had been misinterpreted by the media. In his revised comments, he said there would be no toll increase this year, which The Buffalo News had already noted in its story on Wednesday.
“At this point, there are no toll adjustments planned for next year," he added.
But Madison did not rule out adjustments in 2015 or subsequent years.
The agency also said a bike and walk path for the bridge project that was not included in Wednesday loan deal will be funded in a future financing.
The Public Authorities Control Board, a three-member panel representing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the Senate and Assembly, heard the toll hike acknowledgement during a session when the panel was considering a Thruway request to borrow $256 million to partly fund construction at the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project across the Hudson River between Rockland and Westchester counties.
Wednesday’s session provided the first acknowledgment by the Cuomo administration that a systemwide toll increase can be expected.
Business groups were not happy about the news.
“One of the biggest open secrets in Albany is that toll hikes are coming, yet the Thruway Authority continues to be disingenuous on the amount,” said Michael Durant, New York State director of the National Federation of Independent Business.
“Small-business owners and toll payers across the state deserve better, and the pending elections are seemingly the impetus behind the clouds of uncertainty,” he said after Madison made his comments.
The Thruway Authority for months has been seeking a $511 million loan through the state’s Environmental Facilities Corp.
Officials did not immediately explain why the loan request was cut in half, but it came after push-back from some environmental groups and hesitation by Syracuse-area Republican Sen. John DeFrancisco, a panel member who threatened to vote against the loan. The authority control board’s work requires approval from all three of its voting members. Officials later said a plan for a pedestrian and bike scenic pathway is being shelved.
Environmental groups criticized the loan’s approval as an illegal use of money that is intended for clean water projects.
After the meeting, Madison issued a statement calling the $256 million loan a “first installment” on the originally requested $511 million loan – which was to have been a combination of zero- and low-interest financing from the state’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund. He did not say when the agency will be returning to the control board for the second round of funding.
Critics have voiced concerns that the massive, $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project, the largest capital program proposed by Cuomo, will be felt in higher tolls across the Thruway system and not be confined to users of the bridge. Given where the Thruway runs, that would mean upstate motorists would be disproportionately hit, critics say.
Madison, though, told the panel that revenue needs for the entire system are rising because all regions of the system have “important projects that need to be funded. He noted that 96 percent of the agency’s revenues come from tolls.
DeFrancisco said the Thruway Authority seemed to have the loan request process backward because the agency’s board had not even approved the loan. Madison said that will come Aug. 6.
After voting for the loan, saying he was satisfied with explanations about its uses, DeFrancisco threatened not to approve future funding requests for the bridge unless the Thruway Authority releases a complete financing plan for the bridge.
Whether DeFrancisco will be around for future votes of the panel is uncertain. Cuomo has vowed to help Democrats retake the Senate from the Republicans and its partial control of the chamber. If that happens, DeFrancisco would be replaced on the control board by a Senate Democrat.
Environmental groups were upset Wednesday that a loan fund traditionally used for clean water infrastructure projects is being used to help construct a bridge.
“Public money should not be bandied about behind closed doors without proper public scrutiny and oversight,” said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates.
Iwanowicz said Cuomo should know that the federal government can seek to take back funds from the loan pot that is not used for the usual environmental standards. The Environmental Protection Agency still has to approve the use of the loan funds.
The precise breakdown of how the $256 million will be used was not immediately available, though DeFrancisco noted that $30 million will be used to shield underwater noise during construction “to make sturgeon more productive.”
Matthew Driscoll, president of the Environmental Facilities Corp., a Cuomo administration-run agency that is making the bridge loan, said the loan is legal because the money is being used to protect the Hudson River and its wildlife habitats. He said the money will be repaid and then used for other clean-water projects in the state.