Tappan Zee Toll Boost May Hurt N.Y. Business, DiNapoli Says

A proposal to almost triple tolls on a new Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River and raise rates for truckers on the New York Thruway would be bad for business, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said.

The New York Thruway Authority’s operating costs have increased 36 percent over the last decade as annual debt-service payments doubled to $181.9 million, DiNapoli said in a report released today. The 58-year-old Democrat asked the authority to consider all options before raising tolls.

“Imposing a large toll increase could have damaging effects on consumers and businesses at a time when many New Yorkers are struggling to recover from the recession,” DiNapoli said in an e-mailed statement. “The Thruway should do more before relying on yet another toll hike to make ends meet.”

In May, the authority said it planned to boost by 45 percent the tolls paid by trucks on the Thruway, the longest U.S. toll system. It would be the fifth increase since 2005. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration said this month that tolls on a new $5.2 billion Tappan Zee may triple to $14 when the span opens in 2017.

The two potential toll boosts have put political pressure on Cuomo. Last week, he sent a letter to the authority asking it to find ways to reduce the increase on the new Tappan Zee. He’s been less vocal about the plan for trucks, saying he’s waiting until after public hearings to weigh in. The first of those hearings is scheduled for tomorrow in Buffalo.

Last Resort

“The raising of tolls, more revenue for government, should always be a last resort,” Cuomo said at a press conference in Albany today. “There has been a tremendous amount of mismanagement at the Thruway Authority for many years, and there’s been a tremendous amount of waste. The team that I’ve just put in is trying to rectify that.”

DiNapoli’s report took specific aim at the Canal Corp., the Thruway Authority subsidiary that operates and maintains the 363-mile (584-kilometer) Erie Canal. The authority has spent $1.1 billion on the waterway since it was put under its control in 1992, DiNapoli said. Business groups, including the Rochester-based Unshackle Upstate, suggested in a July 24 letter to Cuomo that the canal should be removed from the authority’s management.

Bloomberg News reported Aug. 2 that the state spends as much as $90 million a year, primarily from Thruway tolls, to operate the canal and takes in only $2 million in revenue. The article cited a May report from Chicago-based Navigant Consulting Inc.

Elusive Goal

In his statement today, DiNapoli called for an independent review of the canal system.

“Moving the canal system into the Thruway Authority was intended, in part, to stimulate tourism and economic development along the historic canal corridors,” DiNapoli said. “This goal, too, has been elusive; boating activity on the canal has declined substantially under Thruway control.”

From 2000 to 2010, boating on the Erie Canal dropped 23 percent to 99,343 vessels, according to the Thruway Authority.

“We’re really looking at the model established in Europe, where smaller but similar vessels cruise through the Rhine and other great areas,” Brian Stratton, director of canals, said in a July interview. “We want to take that very successful model and bring it here to a very significant history corridor along the Erie.”

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