ALBANY – The New York State Thruway Authority adopted a 2015 operating and capital budget of $2 billion Friday that didn’t tell anybody anything they didn’t already know – namely, that tolls are going to have to rise.

What the budget didn’t tell them was when and how much, a failure that rekindled the criticism that has dogged the authority and Gov. Andrew Cuomo since construction of the new $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge started two years ago.

“The public cannot be kept in the dark any longer about the finances of this new bridge,’’ said Nadine Lemmon, the New York policy coordinator for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “The longer this issue is kicked down the road, the more serious the financial shock will be for all those traveling on the Thruway.”

Lemmon pointed out that the budget suggests revenue, projected at $728 million this year, will have to rise by $305 million by 2018 to cover the authority’s costs. The Empire Center has calculated that could translate into 44 percent higher tolls Thruway-wide by 2018, or a tripling of the $5 cash toll for cars on the TZB. Tolls provide more than 90 percent of the authority’s revenue.

In addition, the authority’s own traffic consultant warned in his forecast that the switch to all-electronic tolling on the TZB and at Harriman and Yonkers in 2015-16 could affect projections because of the delays inherent in billing people who don’t have E-ZPass accounts.

The 2015 budget is $300 million higher than this year’s, a bump attributable primarily to TZB-associated costs. The budget actually keeps operating expenses virtually flat at $289 million, an achievement that John Bryan, the authority’s chief financial officer, said reflected savings from refinancing debt, reordering capital investments and reducing staff. The authority also secured $100 million in federal aid for the state’s canal system.

Debt service, however, will almost equal operating expenses at $282 million next year – and could reach $445 million by 2018, when the new TZB is expected to be completed. The $1.4 billion in capital projects includes $967 million, or 69 percent, for the TZB and $290 million, or 20 percent, for the highway and bridges in the rest of the system.

Aside from TZB, the biggest project on tap in 2015 for the New York division, which runs from Yonkers to New Paltz, is converting the Yonkers and Harriman toll plazas to all-electronic tolling at an estimated cost of $31 million.

The authority will also spend $11 million next year to repave 12 miles of the Thruway between New Paltz and Kingston and another nine miles near Saugerties, as well as the Malden service area.

The budget puts no price tag on another major Cuomo initiative – the construction of a new building in Albany to house the Thruway Authority’s headquarters and regional office, the Department of Transportation and the State Police division that patrols the Thruway. Dodge Data and Analytics puts the value of the design-build contract that will be awarded next year at $90 million.

The authority adopted the budget without any discussion among board members or its executive staff, beyond Bryan’s comment.

In a statement after the meeting, Thomas Madison, the authority’s executive director, said the board and staff will “closely monitor all spending and determine what options are available and what actions are necessary to address operations, capital and debt service needs while keeping tolls as low as possible.”

© 2014 Times Herald-Record

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