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Cuomo's Thruway toll break not likely to be in budget

Doug Kerr
via Flickr

When the state budget is approved next week it will likely not include a discount for frequent users of the New York State Thruway. The legislature has rejected Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to use some of the state’s surplus to subsidize tolls.

Cuomo wants to use $340 million of bank settlement monies to fund the first year of a freeze on Thruway tolls that he hopes could continue through 2020. The governor would also like to eliminate tolls all together for some farm-related vehicles. Cuomo announced his plan back in January, which also includes a tax credit for frequent users of the Thruway. It would apply to drivers who spend more than $50 a year on tolls.

“I want to reduce the tolls on the Thruway because it’s a tremendous hardship on businesses and people,” Cuomo said at the time.

But the legislature did not include the toll tax credit in their version of the state budget, a move that annoyed the governor. He said upstate New Yorkers are getting shortchanged.

“Upstate New York, in a tug of war through the budget, is losing what I believe is a significant subsidy and a significant program,” Cuomo said in mid-March.

And the governor said he hopes upstate legislators are held accountable for the absence of the toll reductions in the state spending plan.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie takes offense at the governor’s charges. Heastie is from the Bronx, but spent part of his first summer in his job traveling to upstate regions. He said some leading upstate lawmakers are on record opposing the toll freeze, and 18 of them wrote letter to the speaker outlining their views.

“The very members that the governor claimed that he was speaking for are the ones who wrote me a letter saying they didn’t want to use the money for that reason,” Heastie said. “So, I think before he makes those statements he should actually check to see what the legislators from upstate New York said in both houses.”

Heastie, speaking after a budget meeting with the Senate, said Assembly Democrats would rather see the bank money settlements go towards helping to off-setting rising tuition at state run colleges and universities.

“And we didn’t want to do things that would encourage more car usage with the issues around climate control,” Heastie said.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, who is from Long Island, also deflected any attempts by the governor to create an upstate-downstate divide.

“We basically had a different set of priorities than the executive, which is part of the process, and I’m not going to apologize for that," Flanagan said.

Cuomo fired back-telling Gannett newspapers that lawmakers scrapped the Thruway toll reduction to fund their own “pet projects.”

Budget watchdogs have also weighed in. David Freidful, with Citizens Budget Commission said there’s no real justification to use one time windfall revenues to subsidize frequent drivers. He said the tolls serve a purpose to pay for maintenance and upkeep of the 570-mile long road.

“We think it’s really a poor use of the settlement funds,” Freidful said. “The settlement funds should be used to pay down debt, put into reserves, do things that are really going to help taxpayers over the long term.”

E.J. McMahon with the Empire Center said an analysis by his group finds that, ironically, downstate drivers in the Northern New York City suburbs would actually benefit more in terms of actual dollars spent than upstate Thruway users. He said Tappan Zee Bridge users can buy a pass for $60 a month, so they pay $720 a year on tolls, compared to $88 for the average upstate daily commuter. Under the governor’s plan, the downstate driver would save $360 a year, while the upstate driver would save just $44.  

“That’s a big difference,” McMahon said.

The budget is not due for a few more days, so there’s still a chance that the governor could see the Thruway toll break restored as part of larger spending plan deal.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.