At a time when the Cuomo administration has said tax and fee hikes are not on the table, the State Thruway Authority is moving to hike tolls on trucks by 45 percent -- an increase the billionaire chairman of the authority board deems "modest."
The quietly pushed toll increase was given a preliminary approval Wednesday by the agency's board.
Thruway Authority Chairman Howard Milstein, who said trucks do far more damage to the road system than passenger vehicles, called the proposed increase a "modest" one and said such a hike is among the fairest ways to address the costs involved in running and maintaining the Thruway.
Trucking industry officials disagreed, quickly condemning the plan. They said some carriers won't be able to absorb the costs, while others will have to push the higher expenses onto consumers in the form of higher prices on everything from food to furniture to clothes.
The Thruway Authority made no overt attempt to publicize the planned toll increase. The board Wednesday adopted a report calling for the 45 percent increase -- affecting any vehicle with three or more axles -- and charged the agency's executive director with implementing the recommendations.
It is uncertain when the toll hike will become effective, and given past history of planned toll hikes, there will be plenty of political room for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to get the board to lower its planned toll hike, officials said.
The proposed toll increase comes after a $2 billion tax hike on wealthy New Yorkers last year and annual tuition hikes now built into the state university system.
The plan would add $20 to the present $44.70 for a Thruway trip between Albany and Buffalo. The toll hike would not apply to cars and small trucks.
"We're not happy," said Kendra Adams, executive director of the New York State Motor Truck Association.
Adams said most carriers have profit margins of about 2 percent and already face big bridge and tunnel hikes in downstate New York and neighboring states, including New Jersey.
"Everything you use at some point in time spends some time on a truck, so it obviously increases the costs of goods for consumers," Adams said.
Asked in advance about the possibility of a toll hike, Cuomo said he wanted to first see the specifics. Cuomo was asked about the impact a toll hike would have on tourism at an event in which his administration unveiled a new I New York advertising campaign to kick off the summer tourist season. The seven-week campaign will run across New York and several border states and Canadian provinces.
"If you had to do an increase, you'd want to do it in a way that minimized any impact on tourism, to the extent that's possible," Cuomo said.
Thruway officials, in documents on the agency's website, defended the need for more revenue, saying a capital plan previously approved for bridge and road construction efforts had been inadequately funded.
Governors in the past have scored political points by parachuting in after the Thruway Authority proposed a toll hike and getting the board to lower the hikes to some more politically acceptable level.
But Milstein, the Thruway Authority board chairman, painted a portrait of an agency that had spent beyond its means "to an alarming degree."
Citing a report done for the agency, Milstein said the Thruway Authority board in the past had approved "opaque and potentially risky" short-term debt deals to fund projects and to cover revenue gaps. He said the agency has run up $868 million in short-term debt. And he said those do not affect a major construction effort to replace the Tappan Zee bridge downstate, which has a $5 billion price tag. He said the Tappan Zee would be "addressed with separate financing." He did not elaborate.
Thruway Authority officials said traffic on the highway system is down 10 percent since 2005, while expenses have grown 20 percent. Thruway tolls still subsidize the operations of the state canal system, a budget-balancing maneuver done a generation ago.
Milstein -- a Manhattan-based real estate and bank mogul who owns a large tract of undeveloped land in Niagara Falls -- also defended the proposed toll increase on trucks, saying toll roads in Pennsylvania and New Jersey cost significantly more than New York.
Motorists have long complained that other New York costs, such as gasoline taxes, make up for any lower tolls in New York than some border states.