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Thruway won't have cashless tolling anytime soon

Doug Kerr
via Flickr

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said New Yorkers who use the state Thruway will have a bit of a wait before more cashless tolling is installed on the nearly 500-mile tolled portion of the road.

The Cuomo administration’s Thruway Authority has adopted cashless tolls at the new Tappan Zee Bridge and will take down the toll booths on the Grand Island Bridge in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area early next year.

There already is an option for cashless tolling at the Woodbury exit of the Thruway in the lower Hudson Valley, although toll booths still exist as an alternative.

Cuomo said he supports expanding cashless tolling in theory.

“I would do it all tomorrow, if I could,” Cuomo said at an unrelated event in Niagara Falls on Thursday.

But the governor said it will be a while before the entire Thruway gets rid of its toll booths. He admitted that New York is behind many other states, including neighboring states like Massachusetts, where all toll booths have been removed from the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Cuomo said there’s been a “culture of resistance” to move to the new technology. And he said he expects the toll booth operators union to be against it.

But he also acknowledges that getting rid of the barriers costs money.

“It is a very, very expensive operation to make that transition,” Cuomo said.

He said the gantries, the poles that hold the electronic monitors, and cameras and related software would cost “millions of dollars per application.”

But, Cuomo said, the system would “save money over the long run.”

Greg Biryla with Unshackle Upstate, a business group, said there are pros and cons to removing the toll booths. He said the Thruway is the “economic lifeline” of many communities.

“There’s certainly advantages in being able to move people, goods and services across the Thruway cheaper and more efficiently,” Biryla said. “Cashless tolling, limiting commute times, would certainly benefit industries that are heavy in shipping and that operate between upstate cities.”

But he agreed with Cuomo that the initial expense of removing the tolls booths is a legitimate concern. 

“The governor is also right to be concerned about the costs,” Biryla said. “That’s primarily because the Thruway Authority has historically been very opaque about their costs.” 

He said raising tolls would hurt businesses that rely on the road.

Biryla said cashless tolling is the way of the future, though. Several major bridges in New York City, operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, no longer have toll barriers and have adopted cashless tolling.

Tolls on the Thruway, which was built in the 1950s, were supposed to end in 1996. But state leaders at the time decided to keep it a tolled highway.

Biryla said it’s unfortunate that today’s politicians don’t even discuss whether the tolls should end.

“It’s a sad state of affairs,” said Biryla, who noted the tolls were supposed to end once the construction bonds were paid off.

“Rather than seeing them cease, we’ve seen Thruway tolls go up incrementally over the years,” he said.

Current toll rates are frozen until 2020. Cuomo has not said whether the rates will go up after that.

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.