By Karen P. Morrison
In response to the Aug. 23 editorial in The Buffalo News, “Good riddance to the Grand Island toll barriers,” we need to take an objective look at the entire picture. The Thruway system is in need of significant investment – both in the primary need of providing a safe travelway in good condition, and the secondary aspect for technological improvements.
As opposed to the state Department of Transportation, which is fully dependent upon state and federal revenue streams, the Thruway Authority is essentially self-funded through toll revenues. This revenue is not supplemented by any federal revenues or significant state funding streams. Authority staff and its board of directors must manage operations as well as maintenance of the entire statewide system under this constraint.
Budgeting is a challenge for sure. Remember, the Thruway was built 60 years ago.
In 2016, based on 2014-2015 asset management models of conditions and needs, the authority established a goal to accomplish full system reconstruction within 20 years.
Of the nearly 2,400 lane-miles of pavement, only 10 percent has been reconstructed. In that time frame, the capital program would need to reconstruct at least 110 lane-miles per year. Over the past few seasons, the Thruway has advanced less than one project per year, at approximately 50 lane-miles or less. At that rate, the system will not see road reconstruction accomplished for more than 40 years. One hundred-year-old concrete slabs overlain with asphalt will not support the growing traffic volumes and will crumble.
Similarly, of the 809 bridges on the system, about 620 are more than 60 years old and nearly 80 percent of the crossings are exposed to further deterioration and risk. Using the same 20-year window for attending to the needs, the rate should be 31 bridge replacements per year. Current Thruway capital investment is only five to 10 bridges per year – extending the replacement duration to 100 years or more from now. The system was not designed to be fully serviceable at an age of 160 years.
Last year, the capital construction program was a mere $200 million for the entire 560-mile system. Highway construction needs to be tripled to simply keep pace with the aging pavement and bridge structures. This leaves little to no room for desirable modernizing improvements.
At-speed and cashless tolling is certainly a welcome improvement in traveler convenience as well as congestion mitigation. Recent estimates to upgrade the statewide tolling system to at-speed and cashless is over $500 million.
So, while the desire for technological improvements is clearly understandable, the need for a safe and traffic-bearing surface is imperative. A dependable, scalable, sufficient revenue stream is the only way to provide both safe and efficient travel on our Thruway. Removing physical barriers is one thing. Creating fiscal peril by advocating elimination of revenue is quite another.
Karen P. Morrison, P.E., is vice president of transportation services for Associated General Contractors of New York State.