Editorial: Playing politics with tolls

| Times Union

As so many municipalities and school districts struggle, hemmed in by the property tax cap and only modest increases in state aid, if any at all, New York state appears flush with cash these days.

How else could Gov. Andrew Cuomo be in a position to promise to freeze tolls on the state Thruway through 2020 and offer $340 million in rebates to frequent users of the 570-mile superhighway?

At the same time, the governor is pushing an ambitious five-year, $29 billion statewide infrastructure program. It includes contributing $8.3 billion toward the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s own capital plan and $13.9 billion to the state Department of Transportation capital effort. Many of the roads, bridges, water systems and sewage treatment plants in the state are rapidly deteriorating, so such a broad plan is sorely needed.

The question is how to pay for it. Some of that money is to come from the more than $5 billion the state has received from settlements with banks that violated financial regulations. But New York still has to come up with the rest over the next five years.

So you have to wonder: Is now the time to be looking at rebates on tolls – rebates that will average just $97 a motorist – when the state still has no plan in place to fully pay for the $3.98 billion replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge in the lower Hudson Valley? The new executive director of the Thruway Authority, Maria Lehman, describes the bridge financing plan as still evolving, even as the new span speeds toward completion in 2018. It’s hard to imagine tolls at the current level will be able to pay off the likely debt service to finish construction.

In addition to state infusions to the Thruway Authority, Mr. Cuomo has announced he is undoing the arrangement brokered in 1992 by his late father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, who put the financially troubled state Canal Corp. under the auspices of the Thruway Authority. Since then, by some estimates, Canal Corp. liabilities have drained up to $100 million annually from the authority budget.

Now, the New York Power Authority is taking over the Canal Corp.

But why, with the vast infrastructure needs statewide, are we talking about freezing tolls and offering rebates in the form of tax credits to commuters? As E.J. McMahon, president of the fiscally conservative Empire Center, rhetorically asked: “If the toll credit is the solution, what exactly is the problem?”

Perhaps it’s wooing upstate voters as Mr. Cuomo heads into a probable 2018 re-election contest. In 2014, his Republican challenger, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, carried all but a handful of upstate counties.

The Thruway, after all, spans a broad swath of upstate. But wouldn’t it be better to forgo the toll rebates and apply that $340 million to help pay for the new bridge? And what’s wrong with the notion that users of the Thruway cover its costs, letting tolls rise as needed? That would be better than letting many who never or hardly ever travel the Thruway subsidize the highway.

We’re glad the governor is so bully on fixing the infrastructure. That’s a far better path to re-election than buying votes at $97 each.

© 2016 Times Union