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Cuomo calls Thruway toll increase ‘detrimental’

ALBANY – After six months of either fence-straddling or giving some support for a 45 percent Thruway toll hike plan, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday said any toll increase would be “detrimental.”

He told an Albany radio station that avoiding any toll hike – including a proposed 45 percent increase on most vehicles with three or more axles - should be the “ultimate goal” as the Thruway Authority considers how to raise revenues or cut expenses.

Cuomo’s statement Tuesday appeared to indicate that the administration’s days of defending the $90 million hit on motorists are waning.

The timing of the governor’s remarks come just a week after the Thruway Authority abruptly canceled two board meetings to consider the toll hike, which then led to an unusual public rebuke of the agency – and its handling of the toll increase – by the vice chairwoman of its board of directors.

“It’s the first that we’ve heard any positive news come out of the governor’s office on this issue. We hope the Thruway Authority will take the recommendation seriously and do everything it can to avoid a toll increase,” said Kendra Adams, executive director of the New York State Motor Truck Association.

Cuomo’s latest comments follow a long tradition by governors before him who have let their Thruway agencies float large toll hike plans followed by revised plans that come in with less dramatic increases. His comments would appear to signal a significant retrenchment by an administration that has shown little interest in moving away from the toll increase idea.

Cuomo in the past has defended his agency’s planned toll increase as necessary to help keep it “solvent.” He has openly worried, and did again Tuesday, that the Thruway Authority could face a bond-rating downgrade – which could increase its borrowing costs – if it does not come up with ways to raise revenues.

He told WGDJ that the agency now needs to “get creative” to try to avoid or lower the toll increase plan. “I think they have to explore all options first,” he said.

The Thruway Authority came under criticism for refusing to release the agendas for the two meetings it canceled, and business groups accused the administration of using pressing events – Hurricane Sandy and the presidential election – as cover to push through the toll increase.

Following the hasty postponement of the second scheduled board meeting, Thruway Board Member Donna Luh, of Cheektowaga, broke with the board’s silent style and told The Buffalo News that the agency was operating in secrecy and keeping basic information from the public and board members about the toll increase plan. She beat Cuomo by a week in questioning the need for going ahead with the toll hike.

Critics have long complained that the drivers on the Thruway have paid hundreds of millions of dollars in tolls to cover non-highway expenses, including the 500-mile state canal system.

Operation of the canals, including the Erie Canal, was shifted by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, the current governor’s father, from the state Transportation Department onto the Thruway Authority in the early 1990s as a way to balance the general fund budget.

Cuomo on Tuesday opened the door to perhaps shifting back some of those costs, including a willingness to listen to legislators who have proposed putting the Thruway Authority under control of the Department of Transportation.

Even if the toll increase is restricted to trucks, Cuomo said, “it’s still an increase, and that is not the tone that we have set.”

Cuomo has insisted the state is “open for business,” a claim that has been challenged by some business interests citing the toll hike plan, which critics say would amount to a $90 million tax hike that will merely be passed on to consumers in higher prices on everything from food to clothes.

Cuomo has found himself the target of increasing criticism the longer his Thruway agency has allowed the toll rate hike plan to linger.

Months ago, while borrowing $1 billion, the Thruway Authority told investors that the toll increase would be put in place by the end of September and that there was little chance the proposal would be changed in any significant way.

While the administration initially said the toll increase had nothing to do with the governor’s plan to build a $5 billion bridge downstate across the Hudson River, in recent months Cuomo and the agency have said scuttling the toll proposal could end up increasing the cost of borrowing money for that bridge project.