Sherman Says: New York State Thruway has grown far beyond its original intention
We love the thruway because it gives us a speedy, uninterrupted path to the neighboring cities of Rochester and Syracuse. It also takes us, in short order, to the Pennsylvania state line and beyond. It is also well maintained.
We hate it because we still have to pay a toll to utilize it, more than 50 years since it linked one end of the state with the other. Governor Thomas Dewey has been dead for more than 40 years. His political and professional legacy is one of fighting corruption and bolstering funding for public education. Although widely admired at home, he failed twice to win the election to become president of the United States.
Now, the authority wants to increase tolls for commercial trucks by 45 percent. What the authority lacks in fast food options in its travel plazas, it makes up for in a legal dialect that leaves me cold.
“A 45 percent upward adjustment to commercial toll rates and the authority’s implementation of an operational streamlining program will provide sufficient net revenues to close anticipated operational deficits and provide debt service coverage ratios that comply with the General Revenue Bond Resolution,” said a May 30 memo from Executive Director Thomas Madison Jr.
“Large commercial trucks cause nearly 10,000 times the damage to the road system as do passenger cars. Yet, commercial tolls are only five times greater than passenger tolls on the thruway. The proposed adjustment begins to address this disparity.”
So, truck drivers have become the authority’s summer scapegoat as it attempts to justify an added financial impediment to everyday commerce. Clearly, these costs will be passed on to consumers and may make truckers reconsider using the thruway at all.
Dewey’s plan for a massive highway system for the Empire State originated in 1946 and a rapid “upward adjustment” in vacation-related driving ensued. Motorists who formerly took traditional east-west thoroughfares to get to Niagara Falls, for example, opted instead for the thruway. In the process, operators of small motels and restaurants were left in the proverbial dust.
Fifty-eight years ago this Sunday, on Aug. 26, 1954, Dewey officially opened the 70-mile stretch from Buffalo to Rochester, according to the Batavia Daily News. He said the new superhighway, which had opened its first section from Rochester to Utica two months earlier, was already a “great financial success’’ because tolls – not taxes – were used to finance the project, that paper reported.
“We have automobiles growing to the point where we can’t build enough roads for them,’’ Dewey said. ‘’When I came into office [in 1943], the state’s highways were all twisting and broken up.”
The modern thruway is safer that the pre-war roads Dewey referenced, but so are the vehicles that are driven on them.
Any toll increases this year are not going to improve service for those on a business trip or family vacation. The extra revenue will be used primarily to keep the authority afloat.
Last week, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released an analysis showing that the authority has increased operating costs by 36 percent during the past 10 years, but revenues have not kept pace. “Debt service payments have nearly doubled to $181.9 million over the same time frame, necessitating increased revenue, while the authority has failed to publicly prioritize its capital projects. The thruway should do more before relying on yet another toll hike to make ends meet,” he said, in a release.
DiNapoli reported the thruway has spent more than $1.1 billion since 1992 to support the state’s canal system. The authority estimated that it will cost another $436.5 million to operate and repair the canals between 2013 and 2016. It has become a house of horrors and no one has the keys.
Dewey probably never envisioned the state running a canal system - or using E-ZPass ®to pay for an expensive trip to grandma’s house.
David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at email@example.com.