Thruway passes new budget with no toll increases

| Poughkeepsie Journal

Aided by a $1.3 billion state bailout, the state Thruway Authority on Monday approved a 2015 budget that includes no toll increase this year and directs $909 million to fund the ongoing construction of a new Tappan Zee Bridge in the Hudson Valley.

The new budget figures come after the board that oversees the 570-mile thoroughfare last December took the unusual step of passing a $1.7 billion budget with a $25 million revenue shortfall.

In the state budget approved April 1, however, the Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed $1.3 billion of a $5 billion windfall from bank settlements to the Thruway Authority.

The move solidified the agency’s troubled finances as it deals with building the new $3.9 billion bridge, making system-wide road repairs and dealing with stagnant revenue from tolls. And the Thruway was able to lower its toll revenue projections by $300 million through 2018, closing an expected budget gap that signaled a potential toll increase in future years.

“After a relatively short amount of time, after a three-month period, we basically got the authority’s books in order, and we will continue to work to do that in the future,” said Robert Megna, the agency’s executive director, said at its board meeting.

The Thruway’s budget includes $22 million in spending cuts and nearly $44 million in reduced debt payments, the agency said. The Thruway’s fiscal year started Jan. 1, and the new budget also allowed the agency to put off $57 million in Tappan Zee Bridge payments until 2016.

Of the $1.3 billion from the state, about $750 million will go to the new bridge between Westchester and Rockland counties. The bridge is expected to open in 2018, but the Thruway Authority has yet to detail how the bridge will be fully funded and what the tolls would be. The current round-trip toll is $5.

Overall, the Thruway’s capital plan for this year includes $909 million for the bridge; $321 million for Thruway road repairs and $52 million for upgrades to the canal system, which the Thruway also manages, according to Matt Howard, the agency’s chief financial officer.

It also includes the elimination of 156 positions at the Thruway Authority and 16 positions at the Canal Corp., but it appears the majority of those are vacant jobs.

“The modified 2015 plan that has been prepared begins our efforts to provide a balanced financial plan by reducing operating costs and debt service and making no toll adjustments in 2015,” the Thruway’s budget states.

The Thruway’s finances have been tenuous in recent years, and business groups in 2012 beat back a 45 percent toll increase that was proposed for trucks. The Thruway last raised tolls in 2010.

Even as of December, the Thruway’s financial picture appeared troubled. The budget documents then showed a $300 million gap between projected revenue and expenses in 2018. To close that gap, tolls would have needed to increase 45 percent by 2018.

About 96 percent of the Thruway Authority’s $689 million in total revenue in 2014 came from tolls. So the state’s $1.3 billion infusion to the Thruway appears to have steadied its finances as it builds the new bridge.

The Thruway estimated that it will budget $2.8 billion by 2019 to fund the bridge’s construction.

“The settlement cash provides the Thruway Authority with enough budget relief to put off a toll increase for a few more years,” said E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for State Policy, a fiscally conservative group in Albany. “However, we still need to see a full financing plan for the new bridge.”

© 2015 Gannett News Service