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Cuomo proposes no Thruway toll hikes until 2020

ALBANY – The Thruway will have no toll increases until at least 2020 and nearly 1 million regular users of the highway would be eligible for a state tax credit to offset tolls they do pay, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed Wednesday.

In addition, New York residents or corporations using the Thruway to ship agricultural products would get a credit on their New York taxes that in effect would eliminate Thruway tolls for those shipments.

“We want to bring down the cost of doing business. It will send a tremendous signal to business that this is a much different state than before,” Cuomo said at an event outside Syracuse on Wednesday morning while announcing the transportation plan he will include in his 2016 budget next week.

Cuomo’s proposal does not eliminate tolls for the vast number of drivers on the highway. But the agricultural shipment proposal would reduce taxes by about $5 million for New York farm-related companies and individuals that use the Thruway. They still will pay tolls, but will get a tax break during tax filing season.

For regular users – those who spend more than $50 annually on Thruway tolls – Cuomo’s budget would give a tax credit to passenger vehicles enrolled in the E-ZPass program. That would result in an average tax savings against toll payments of about $97, Cuomo said.

Business and commercial vehicles that pay tolls of between $100 and $9,999 also would get a tax credit against a portion of their toll payments. About 26,000 current businesses would qualify for some level of tax credit, the administration said.

Cuomo said the state also will provide $700 million in Thruway infrastructure improvements. It was not immediately clear how much of that money will be dedicated to the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project now underway downstate over the Hudson River.

The Thruway toll freeze is an about-face for a governor whose administration in 2012 fought to push through a 45 percent rate hike on commercial vehicles using the Thruway. Whether the governor’s full plan addressing tolls through 2020 will stay in place is uncertain; a governor cannot lock in financial commitments of future governors and Cuomo’s term ends at the end of 2018 unless he runs and wins a third term.

The governor also proposed a $22 billion capital program for improving roads and bridges in the state. It is about the same level, when local and federal money is included, as his plan for downstate transit programs. Cuomo on Wednesday said he also wants to invest $30 million in upstate transit.

The $22 billion program would be stretched out over five years to address worsening road and bridge conditions, especially in the aging upstate infrastructure systems. Cuomo on Wednesday only provided a fraction of the detail on his spending plans. Of the $22 billion, he broadly outlined $1 billion for bridge repairs, $1 billion for paving 1,300 miles of state and local roads, and $500 million earmarked for roads most at risk of extreme weather events, such as flooding.

The governor’s proposal comes as part of what he said will be his most ambitious State of the State policy and fiscal ideas; he makes the annual address next Wednesday in Albany. Cuomo has been struggling in polls, with voters, especially upstaters, having soured on the Democrat who once soared in public opinion polls.

Cuomo’s Thruway toll plan would be funded by a special pot of $1 billion; he did not say how the money would be provided. Those details could emerge in his budget plan presentation next week.

Thruway tolls have been a political minefield for Democrats and Republicans. Tolls were frozen from 1988 through 2005 before going through a steady round of increases. Tolls originally were supposed to end across the highway system when the original construction bonds were paid off 20 years ago. But Cuomo acknowledged that the state over those years kept the tolls intact “because the state didn’t want to give up the revenue from the Thruway which was now a gravy train.’’