The canals and two toll-free highways downstate were added to the Thruway’s ledger in the early 1990s by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo. The reason? To hold down official state spending during yet another fiscal crisis. The result? Another fiscal gimmick that reduced the need for state officials to make difficult decisions on spending. Although one of the downstate highways has since been turned over to the state Department of Transportation, Thruway users remain on the hook for obligations they shouldn’t have.
The current Gov. Cuomo – Andrew – should finally uncouple this unjustifiable linkage. If he doesn’t do so on his terms, then he may be forced to. The American Trucking Association has filed a lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan to stop the practice.
It certainly has been lucrative for the canal system. Indeed, some $1.2 billion in Thruway toll revenues over two decades has been diverted to pay for the Erie Canal and other waterways around upstate that make up the New York canal system.
Meanwhile, it’s been a sailor’s paradise on the canals, with boaters traveling virtually free of charge on a system with annual costs exceeding $100 million. It wasn’t until recently that boaters were made to pay as little as $25 for a season pass to use the canal system. User fees generated only about $2 million for the canals last year, while Thruway drivers contributed $100 million.
You don’t have to be a motorist to see the injustice in this arrangement. The trucking association maintains that New York is violating provisions of the U.S. Constitution’s interstate commerce clause by charging excessive Thruway tolls to pay for the operations of the unrelated canal system. Not only does the class-action lawsuit on behalf of all truckers seek to halt the Thruway from using toll money to operate the canals, it also requests monetary damages for the “illegal tolls” collected since Nov. 14, 2010.
The Thruway Authority has not been the best-run of state agencies, to put it mildly, relying on repeated toll hikes to fund a bloated agency. Only last year the authority tried to raise truck tolls 45 percent. After an enormous outcry, the authority decided it could close its budget gap with staff cuts and other efficiencies. And now the authority has to decide whether to raise tolls to fund the $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge replacement. If the state does disentangle the Thruway and canals, every penny of that $100 million now going to the canals has to be used to reduce tolls, not spent elsewhere.
The issue here is not whether the canal system serves a legitimate purpose for the state. It does, and the lawsuit says as much, pointing out that the canal system is worth $400 million a year in tourism and business to communities along the route. The issue is how to pay for it, and the logical answer is that considering the statewide importance of the system, the state’s general budget should pay for costs not covered by user fees.
Back in the early 1990s, diverting money from the Thruway and putting it into the canal and other waterways upstate may have flown as a good idea. But times have changed and sensitivities about such off-the-books spending have sharpened.
Put the canal costs where they belong. In the state budget.