New York State Exposed: Are Thruway tolls necessary?

Posted at: 10/28/2013 6:48 AM
Updated at: 10/30/2013 2:42 PM
By: Janet Lomax

There are now more than 5,200 miles of toll roads in the U.S. in 35 states. The New York State Thruway, at 570 miles, is the longest toll super highway in the country. Why are we paying to drive? What are we getting for our money? News10NBC went all the way to the top and talked with the man who oversees the New York State Thruway.

For a lot of New Yorkers, paying tolls is part of their daily commute.

Sharon Ciminelli, Buffalo realtor, said, “We are paying tolls to use the roads, tolls to cross bridges, once you get out of New York State, you can drive almost to Florida without paying a toll.”

Alice Miranda, Buffalo realtor, said, “Yes, they said it would be paid up and we wouldn't have to have tolls anymore. Well, they've gone up, up and up. It's not right. As a matter of fact, we've had a couple of tolls taken down in Buffalo. Mr. Carl Paladino worked and he got some removed.”

Carl Paladino, the Buffalo area businessman who lost the race for governor in 2010, won a battle to get rid of two tolls in Buffalo. The Ogden Street toll, coming into the city from the Thruway, and the Riverside Toll, coming in from the west. He found a state law that required the state to remove the tolls once the bonds were paid off. 

News10NBC drove to Grand Island to talk with a man who helped Paladino win that fight. Rus Thompson hates tolls, calls them, "a commuter tax". He points to the federal highway tax and says the state Thruway applies for and gets funding.  

Rus Thompson, anti-toll activist, said, “It may not be state tax dollars, but a lot of federal funds come in. A lot of people consider driving on the Thruway to be a tax, so there are plenty of state tax dollars that are being used on it. You know, as you pay your tolls, what's a toll? A toll is a tax. Just a play on words.”

Back on the Thruway at Exit 45 in Victor, News10NBC met with Thomas Madison, the man who runs the New York State Thruway Authority, and asked him why we are still paying tolls. 

Thomas Madison, New York State Thruway Authority, said, “The vast majority of our funding comes from tolls revenues, so it is very necessary that we continue to collect the tolls.”

Madison says the tolls generate $650 million each year. When the Thruway first opened in the 1950's , the plan was to pay off the bonds and get rid of the tolls. But years later, an advisory council recommended and lawmakers agreed to keep them, rather than hit taxpayers up.

Madison said, “I think you can see where the toll money is going every single day. Here in western New York, we're investing in more than $109 million just this year in 2013. It's the biggest part of our program anywhere in the state except for the Tappan Zee construction. First of all, if you take a look at the New York State Thruway and compare us with other major toll roads even here in the northeast, you are going to see an appreciable difference in the level of services provided plus you will see a very big difference in the cent per mile cost that you're paying. We are a bargain. The New York State Thruway is still the biggest bargain in terms of what you pay per mile when you're on our system.”

News10NBC's Janet Lomax said, “But if I drive through the state of Kentucky, I'm not paying anything.”

Madison said, “Well, you're getting a premium system that's safer just to mention. When it comes to snow and ice, we have a black pavement policy that's very important here in the Rochester and western NY in general.”

He says 2012 was the safest year in the history of the authority. News10NBC talked with a lot of drivers about paying tolls. Some complained, but majority didn't have a problem with them. 

News10NBC asked Tom Madison how much he paid to drive from Albany to Exit 45 to meet News10NBC. 

Madison said, “I have a non revenue tag on my vehicle as a Thruway employee because of the position I'm in.”

News10NBC asked how that $190 million for western New York is being used. He says there are a range of projects, large ones like the reconstruction of the northern span of the Grand Island bridges to smaller ones like resurfacing roads.

News10NBC wants to know what you think about paying tolls. Posts your thoughts on this story on our Facebook page.