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Thruway agency needs a new driver

It took Gov. Andrew Cuomo more than five months to definitively say that a Thruway toll hike would be "detrimental."

The average New Yorker might have been able to tell him a 45 percent spike for big trucks was a bad idea in five minutes. But most of us aren't politicians weighing difficult dilemmas.

This isn't Cuomo's decision to make. But it is in the hands of a Thruway Authority whose chairman and director he picked. And finally, after months of borderline defending the proposal to raise tolls on big trucks by 45 percent, the governor made it clear last week that he wants them to take another look.

"The direction that I've sent is to explore every possible option. Period," Cuomo said on an Albany radio program last week.

The Thruway Authority has bumbled its way into a financial corner, relying in recent years on short-term thinking and risky borrowing as costs rose and fewer vehicles traveled an aging highway system. Now, having signaled to lenders months ago that it plans to increase tolls on trucks by 45 percent, the authority's board has gone underground, canceling meetings and refusing to say when exactly it might vote on the matter.

That has left the rest of us to wonder: Why should we trust it to make the right decisions now?

The debacle over canceled Thruway Authority meetings and secret agendas is a sideshow to the thorny troubles the highway system faces. But it's the kind of flash point that might just motivate the state into action.

Even Cuomo said last week that he wasn't ruling anything out – suggesting he might be willing to fold the authority into the Department of Transportation.

"I'd be open to any option, because I think any toll increase is detrimental," Cuomo told radio host Fred Dicker.

The root of the problem is that, for decades, Thruway leaders sat back as deficits ballooned and debt sharply rose, forcing the highway system into a situation where it was relying on borrowed cash to take on more and more repairs.

Sooner or later, that sort of strategy catches up to you. And it's happening to the Thruway Authority just as it wants to take on a massive project to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge downstate at an estimated price tag of $5 billion.

The threat of a bond rating downgrade is one of the factors behind the proposed truck toll increase.

Meanwhile, a canal system dumped on the Thruway Authority in the '90s has been sapping the highway of cash. It costs $80 million to $90 million a year to operate and maintain, but it brings in just $2 million.

All this was laid out in an independent review earlier this year by a consulting firm that came to this conclusion: Had the Thruway Authority been better managed, it would likely not be facing the situation it is today.

The Thruway Authority has new leaders now, but their actions this month have hardly erased what has become clear: Operating the Thruway Authority as a quasi-governmental agency has turned into a failure.