The state Thruway Authority on Friday passed a 2015 budget that leaves a funding gap, and the agency refused to answer questions about whether a toll hike is imminent.

The Thruway board adopted the $1.7 billion budget with a $25 million revenue shortfall with no discussion or debate. The board and top staff then went into a closed-door room rather than answer questions from the media about whether a toll increase would be needed in 2015.

Later, after reporters were told there would be no comment from Thruway officials, a spokesman put out a statement saying that the Thruway would review its options to close its deficit.

“As always, board members and Thruway staff will continue to 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,” the spokesman, Dan Weiller, said.

The Thruway’s actions left state lawmakers and watchdog groups miffed. They criticized the authority for a lack of transparency. The agency has refused to say how it might close its budget gap or how it plans to fund a new $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge in the Hudson Valley — a project that is fueling its budget woes.

“It’s the highest level of arrogance for a public authority that is supposed to working on behalf of our taxpayers,” said Assembly Republican Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, Ontario County.

Initially, the Thruway showed as much as a $36 million shortfall for the fiscal year that begins Jan. 1. But budget documents showed Friday it would be about $10 million less. If the gap was closed solely through tolls, fares would have to increase about 4 percent in 2015, the projections show.

The Thruway would need to either raise tolls next year, get state help or cut spending to close the gap, said E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for New York State Policy.

The bigger problem for the agency are future years — when its own budget documents show a $300 million gap between projected revenue and expenses in 2018. McMahon predicted that to close the gap solely with toll revenue, tolls would need to increase about 45 percent on the 570-mile thoroughfare in 2018.

The budget is balanced, McMahon said, but “it’s a budget that assumes higher tolls.”

About 96 percent of the Thruway Authority’s $689 million in total revenue in 2014 has come from tolls, including more than $138 million alone from the Tappan Zee Bridge. The bridge is responsible for about 95 percent of the Thruway’s budget deficit, records show.

Nadine Lemmon, policy coordinator for Tri-State Transportation Campaign, urged the board during the public-comment period of the meeting to release more details about the bridge’s financing. The Thruway has yet to say how it will fund the bridge or what the toll would be on the new bridge set to open in 2018; the roundtrip toll is $5.

“The public cannot be kept in the dark any longer about the finances of this new bridge,” Lemmon said.

It’s possible the state could step in to prevent a toll hike in 2015 and in future years. The Thruway last raised tolls in 2010.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested earlier this month that the state could subsidize the authority to prevent a toll hike, pointing out that the state has taken over some Thruway police operations to help the Thruway’s books.

While members of the Thruway Authority Board would not talk with us on-camera in Albany Friday, many of our local lawmakers did not shy away from sharing their opinions about how to deal with the budget gap.

“It raises the question on where are they going to get the money,” said State Senator Patrick Gallivan.

“It’s just unbelievable that they would pass a budget which is not balanced,” added State Senator Michael Ranzenhofer.

Ranzenhofer and Gallivan oppose hiking Thruway tolls. Instead, they think the Thruway Authority should cut its ties with the canal system.

“The Thruway Authority is in the business of operating a highway, and we are asking users of that highway to subsidize the canal system, and that just doesn’t seem right to me,” says Gallivan.

Gallivan says that move could save the Thruway, and its users, nearly $100 million a year.

Then there’s the question of how to fund the Tappan Zee Bridge.

“There’s no way that WNY taxpayers and motorists should foot the bill for a bridge for which they will never receive any benefit,” said Ranzenhofer.

So what can the State Senate do about the Thruway Authority’s budget problems?

“They don’t have a chairman, so anybody that comes before us looking to be a chairman, and they have to come before my committee as I’m chair of Corporations and Authorities, that will be the number one question that we’re going to ask them, what is your plan?” said Ranzenhofer.

“The first step to fixing a budget problem is to acknowledge your budget problem. I was pleased that the Thruway Authority actually did accurate and transparent accounting so that we know that they have a problem,” said Assemblyman Sean Ryan.

Ryan doesn’t want the tolls to go up either.

“The tolls didn’t go up today, do you think that could happen in the future to cover this gap?” asked Kelly Dudzik.

“I don’t think so. There is a little bit of people getting alarmed that the Thruway Authority is going to ram through a toll hike. I’ve had several conversations with members of the Thruway Authority. They’re not going to do anything without public input. There’s going to be public hearings on it, so if they go the road that I don’t endorse, which would be to try to increase revenues that way, they’re going to have to answer to the public before they do that,” says Ryan.

The Thruway Authority issued this statement:

“The Thruway Authority board of directors has approved the 2015 budget. As always, board members and Thruway staff will continue to 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.”– Thruway Authority Executive Director Tom Madison.

© 2014 WGRZ

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