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‘Thruway stabilization’ stems from windfall

ALBANY – Mired in serious deficits for the first time in its 60-year history, the Thruway Authority stands to receive a $1.3 billion infusion of cash in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s new budget as a result of a one-time windfall that Wednesday he called “basically a gift from above.”

The governor called the move a “Thruway stabilization program” that will help pay for a new Tappan Zee Bridge over the lower Hudson River while staving off any immediate need for a toll increase.

“We’ll take $1.3 billion from the settlement fund to help the Thruway and help finish the Tappan Zee Bridge,” he said, pointing to the $4 billion project that, while replacing the current crumbling span, is dragging the Thruway system into a significant deficit of $26 million for this year.

“We’ll work with our partners in Washington to get (more) money for the bridge,” he added, which proved a problem in 2013 when about $400 million in federal environmental funds planned for the structure were denied.

Cuomo never used the term “infrastructure bank” that many transportation planners have advocated in recent weeks in light of the surplus stemming from settlements between state law enforcement agencies and several financial institutions. The idea had been floated as a way of investing the funds in transportation projects that would stand as permanent additions to the state’s infrastructure rather than filling holes in current operating budgets.

Downstate’s sprawling Metropolitan Transportation Authority had been eyeing some of the funds for capital needs that some transit experts peg at $15 billion. And while a pittance in comparison, Western New York’s Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority recently unveiled a plan to fill a $10 million budget deficit with state funds for capital projects available through a vehicle such as an infrastructure bank.

NFTA officials acknowledge that state budget planners have suggested the capital route as opposed to past efforts to gain more operating assistance because of the availability of the new funds. But those same officials late Wednesday were unable yet to identify any new source of funding in the budget for the NFTA, while emphasizing all budget information is not yet available.

And while the governor’s budget action looms as good news for the Thruway Authority and travelers along its 570-mile system, budget critics wonder it is enough.

E,J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for Public Policy, who writes extensively on recent Thruway finances, said the governor’s budget represents a “step toward” stabilizing the system. But he also predicted no other way around efforts to at least double the current $4.75 Tappan Zee Bridge toll when the staggering costs for the new span are totaled – not to mention needs along the rest of the Thruway system.

“Even if you gave it all to the bridge, you would solve the bridge problem only if you at least double the toll and not fix the other Thruway needs,” he said, alluding to more fiscal problems ahead.

McMahon said the governor was trying to appease many transportation stakeholders by earmarking surplus funds for other projects like new Metro North stations in the Bronx and Westchester as well as new parking garages for transit hubs in the New York City suburbs. He called their necessity “not essential.”

“I think the governor has to pick priorities and go with them,” McMahon said. “The area with the biggest need is transportation and this is the biggest chunk of money any governor ever has had or will have in our lifetime. He’s whacking out pieces like the Legislature would and making the kind of choices they would make.”