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Editorial: Plan to limit high-speed toll system to downstate needs to be reworked

Maybe Bill Finch made a mistake. He surely couldn’t have meant it when he testified before a joint legislative hearing on Wednesday that the New York Thruway Authority has no plans to extend the cashless, high-speed toll system upstate, even though it is already operating in parts of downstate.

And yet, Finch is the acting executive director of the Thruway Authority, so he should know. Maybe he just forgot.

It doesn’t matter, because either way, state legislators and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo need to get to the bottom of it. There is no way that upstate drivers should be left to subsidize an antiquated, inefficient and frustrating toll system while commuters using the Tappan Zee Bridge and Manhattan crossings benefit from its advantages.

Those benefits are obvious and can be sampled simply by driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike. With overhead monitors reading either transponders or license plates along the highway, no toll barriers slow or stop traffic. Instead, traffic moves. That’s safer, faster and cleaner with no idling cars and trucks spewing exhaust as they wait to pay the toll.

The high-speed system is needed to keep the Thruway up to date. It’s not just Massachusetts that has adopted the cashless system. New Hampshire, Florida and Texas, among other states, use it.
It’s bad enough that New York has already taken this long to modernize, but to plan for it in only one small geographic area is nonsensical and aggravating to millions of motorists.

That is especially true in areas such as Western New York, home to a high concentration of unnecessary and inefficient toll barriers. In addition to the several entrance and exit ramps here are the hard stops at Williamsville and Lackawanna and the aggravating backups at the Grand Island Bridges.

And yet, both the Thruway Authority and those with influence over it are indifferent to the inconvenience they plan to continue imposing on at least half of the state’s population and a region that extends for hundreds of miles. They are content to consign upstate to a groaning, 20th century toll system, while moving at lightning speed to bring downstate into the modern age.

It’s not good enough. This is, no doubt, an expensive and logistically complicated change, but that doesn’t excuse the Thruway Authority’s failure even to plan for what has to happen, and sooner rather than later.
Perhaps government and authority leaders don’t understand the level of resentment over the toll system, which was supposed to be abolished in 1996 – 21 years ago – when the highway’s construction bonds were paid off. Not only did that fail to happen (and is anyone surprised?), but costs rose even higher when the state canal system was placed in the Thruway Authority’s care in 1992. That has now changed, but tolls haven’t declined, and they add to the financial burden of living in New York.

Here’s one example of the frustrations facing New Yorkers. A motorist can drive more than 1,000 miles from Texas to New York toll-free – until hitting the state line. While defenders note that the toll system requires out-of-state drivers to contribute to the highway’s maintenance, it doesn’t change the fact that it counts as additional proof of the high costs of living in New York.

The least the Thruway Authority can do, then, is to ensure that its technology is up to date and that drivers are subject to the minimum necessary inconvenience. In one of the country’s most extensive toll systems, it at least needs to keep up with the times.

This is a requirement, not an option. The Thruway Authority needs to create a realistic plan – with a deadline – to get this done.

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