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Thruway officials mum on changes in wake of November storms

ALBANY – Thruway officials are still sorting out their response to a November mega-snowstorm that left dozens of people stranded throughout the Buffalo area.

And they face a $39 million budget gap that theoretically could result in a toll hike this year.

But Thruway Authority directors never uttered a peep about either situation during their annual budget-passing session Friday in Albany, when they unanimously approved a  $2 billion spending plan that basically puts off the deficit until another day.

And snow? What snow? The trustees of the 571-mile highway never even alluded to  one of the most serious crises of its more than 60-year history – or the criticism of their response.

It all led E.J. McMahon, president of Albany’s Empire Center for Public Policy and a student in recent years of Thruway finances, to ask: “Where’s the plan?”

“They basically don’t have a plan,” he said. “If they have a plan, it’s nothing they’re sharing with us.”

To be sure, Thruway officials earlier this week freely acknowledged they have no answers yet about how to plug the $39 million hole, but are confident that several options short of a toll increase are available. They also said they are soliciting information from various Western New York stakeholders following the storm that dumped as much as 7 feet of snow on parts of the system in the Buffalo area, and that information will result in recommendations for new procedures.

But at the meeting Friday in Thruway Authority headquarters, neither directors nor staff ever addressed the two looming problems. Neither was staff available after the meeting to answer questions from reporters.

“The Thruway Authority board of directors has approved the 2015 budget,” Executive Director Thomas J. Madison said in a prepared statement. “As always, board members and Thruway staff will continue to closely monitor all spending and determine what options are available and what actions are necessary to address operations, capital and debt service needs while keeping tolls as low as possible.”

Earlier this week authority officials made it clear that the deficit would be made up somehow, and that innovative approaches, such as using the state’s $5 billion surplus for an “infrastructure bank” to provide low-cost loans for major capital expenditures, are under consideration. More use of direct state subsidies to the otherwise independent authority also is being explored.

But McMahon, who has been writing extensively on the Thruway Authority’s budget problems in recent weeks, said the continuing challenges of building a new, $4 billion Tappan Zee Bridge across the lower Hudson River drives many of the authority’s fiscal concerns.

“This all started last year as they faced a yawning budget gap caused by the added expense of building the bridge,” he said.

He also said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has championed building the crucial link between Westchester and Rockland counties, could make a “plausible argument” that the bridge could be paid for in part by the state’s general capital plan.

“But he hasn’t said it,” McMahon said, adding former Gov. George E. Pataki could have built the bridge too – but didn’t.

“The only reason George Pataki did not do the same thing is that he did not have a plan to pay for it,” he said.

McMahon expressed optimism that the authority will figure out a way to fill its budget gap, but added he firmly believes Tappan Zee tolls – a key aspect of the Thruway’s overall budget – will have to rise to counter the statewide effect.

He and others also are questioning why direct state subsidies might be considered when the Thruway has proven to be a self-sustaining operation throughout its six decades of existence.

He said the directors have a broad, independent responsibility for managing the authority’s finances. “They’re not being accused of mismanagement,” he said. “It’s just that the numbers show a divergence between revenues and expenses because off this bridge they are very obviously building.

“So what’s the plan?” he added.

Thruway officials declined to address McMahon’s concerns. But they counter that they expect that Tappan Zee costs will be covered by the bridge’s tolls, and that increases are rare – only one was enacted between 1988 and 2005.

But they emphasize that while they are addressing the authority’s biggest capital project ever at Tappan Zee, they are also launching unprecedented cost-cutting moves. They say that by 2016, the effort will reduce operating costs by 30 percent – $150 million – versus pre-2011 estimates.

The cost-cutting measures include:

• Laying off more than 200 Thruway workers last year, while others left via attrition.

• Transferring the cost of Troop T from the authority to the State Police for the first time since the Thruway opened in the mid-1950s.

• Reducing the long-range capital construction program by $375 million.

• Cutting operating costs by more than $200 million through layoffs, hiring controls and other measures.

• Refinancing outstanding debt, a move expected to yield $100 million in interest savings.

• And securing commitments for $100 million in federal transportation aid.