SYRACUSE, N.Y. – The short answer is no: the New York State Thruway has no toll increased planned for its 2015 budget.

But that ‘no’ comes with caveats as the Thruway authority, which already has trimmed staff and costs to shore up recent shortfalls, looks to build a $3.9 billion replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge.

To make the 2015 proposed $2 billion budget balance without any toll increase, the Thruway is depending on more drivers than its own traffic consultant estimates, according to E.J. McMahon, an Albany budget watchdog who is president and founder of the Empire Center for Public Policy.

That means the Thruway is counting on $31 million more in toll revenues in 2015 than forecasted in its traffic study, McMahon says.

That’s not an unusual budget tactic, McMahon notes, to make a proposed budget balance on paper. But it can’t continue, especially with the massive bridge cost looming.

“There’s no question that there’s going to be some Thruway toll increase,” McMahon said. “The question is who pays how much how soon?”

The Thruway’s board meets at noon on Monday and is expected to take up the proposed budget for the Thruway and Canal Corporation for the fiscal year that starts Jan. 1.

Already, the Thruway has tightened its belt. It refinanced some debt to save $100 million in interest payments. Taxpayers now pay for New York State Police on the Thruway and some other operating expenses, an $85 million annual savings for the authority. Those changes came after the Thruway proposed, then backed away from, a 45 percent truck toll increase two years ago.

The 2015 budget calls for reducing its staff by another 20 positions, part of restructuring that has saved more than $150 million since 2011.

Neither the state nor the authority has said how it plans to pay for the $3.9 billion bridge. A plan to use about $500 million in federal money earmarked for clean water projects was shot down earlier this year. That money is not included in the 2015 proposal, McMahon said.

For now, McMahon has an idea to bridge that $31 million gap: Charge the Tappan Zee drivers an extra $1 starting next year. Already, the toll to cross the bridge is $4.75.

© 2014 Syracuse Media Group

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