State should come clean about how it will pay for the Tappan Zee Bridge - The Buffalo News

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State should come clean about how it will pay for the Tappan Zee Bridge

Does anyone doubt the New York State Thruway Authority will raise tolls next year? It hasn’t been formally confirmed, but one suspects that’s only because this is an election year for the governor and all members of the Legislature. But it’s coming.

And, as galling as it is, New Yorkers should be prepared to hear out the explanation – if only one were in the offing. And that explanation needs to include the expected sources of funding for the planned replacement for the aging Tappan Zee Bridge, which connects Westchester and Rockland counties at virtually the widest part of the Hudson River. The expectation is that a toll increase is meant, at least in part, to help fund the staggering $4 billion cost.

There are reasons for upstaters to hold their fire, at least for the moment. Downstate is a net donor to the upstate economy; tax dollars from there help to support Buffalo, its school district and, indeed, all upstate schools. A March story by Reuters reported that New York State collected $10.3 billion in taxes from Wall Street during its last fiscal year. That accounted for about 16 percent of all state tax revenues, and even that is down from the pre-recession level of 20 percent.

It’s an enormous amount of money from a geographically small area and what it means, in broad terms, is that upstate has a compelling economic interest in supporting a robust downstate economy. Transportation infrastructure is a key part of that economy’s ability to function. So is it unfair if tolls all along the Thruway help to support that project?

It depends.

First, all New Yorkers need to know the exact funding mechanisms planned for construction of the new bridge and demolition of the existing one. Do Thruway tolls account for 10 percent of the cost? 20 percent? 50 percent? How much will actual users of the bridge pay? Plainly, they should be among the primary funders of the project, but not so much that tolls become a life-altering expense.

If Thruway tolls are to fund some generally acceptable amount of the project, how will they be apportioned out across the system? Again, will downstate drivers be expected to shoulder a higher proportional burden, since they will be the primary users of the bridge?

These are things that New Yorkers do not know at this point and, unfortunately, probably won’t know until sometime after Nov. 4, when the election is safely past and politicians are less fearful of telling voters how deeply they are about to dig into their pockets.

No one wants to see tolls go up, especially given that the Thruway Authority originally promised that tolls would be eliminated in 1996, when the system’s construction bonds were paid off. That was a laugh. No one, not an individual and certainly not a government, willingly gives up an easy money stream. For New York State, maintaining the tolls provided the opportunity to shift the canal system off budget by assigning responsibility to the Thruway Authority.

So the tolls remain and costs do rise. Maybe there’s an argument for an increase, even one that helps to fund the Tappan Zee project. But it hasn’t been made yet.

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