ALBANY - A costly canal system, a lack of planning and even repeated errors in predicting traffic show the New York Thruway Authority needs to look within for savings before it forces what it calls a "modest" 45 percent increase in truck tolls that will also slam consumers, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said Wednesday.
DiNapoli issued a report that calls for the toll proposal to be a last option.
The proposal made in May by the authority's chairman appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo is scheduled to begin Sept. 30, though the required public hearings are being held this week around the state.
"Imposing a large toll increase could have damaging effects on consumers and businesses at a time when many New Yorkers are struggling to recover from the recession," DiNapoli said in the report. "The Thruway should do more before relying on yet another toll hike to make ends meet."
The authority didn't immediately comment Wednesday.
The toll for a three-axle truck traveling from Buffalo to New York City is now about $88. That could increase to $127. In June, the Standard & Poor's rating agency said "aggressive" toll increases for truckers and eventually all drivers might be needed even though a multiyear phase-in of toll increases for car drivers ended in 2010.
Thruway Executive Director Thomas Madison, a Cuomo appointee, said the increase in tolls will help repair damage caused by the big trucks, but it will still be at or below the level of tolls in neighboring states. Madison claimed previous governors left a fiscal mess for the Cuomo administration that forces toll increases.
In a May 30 letter to the Thruway Authority board, Madison cited an independent traffic engineer's report.
The engineers stated that "traffic and revenue growth will soon become insufficient for the authority to maintain fiscal balance and debt" payments promised to its bond holders in previous borrowing contracts.
DiNapoli, however, contests the assessment that declining traffic and unalterable rising costs are to blame.
He said that the Thruway Authority doesn't prioritize its capital projects sufficiently and that it must look at a cheaper way to maintain the statewide canal system used for pleasure boating. DiNapoli said the authority has spent $1.1 billion to fund the system since it took over the Canal Corp. in 1992. Then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, the current governor's father, and the Legislature had transferred the canal system to the Thruway, which eliminated the cost from the state budget.
DiNapoli notes that the state constitution, however, prohibits selling the canal system that is estimated to cost $436.5 million to repair and maintain from 2013 to 2016.
Overall, DiNapoli's report states that the Thruway increased its operating costs by 36 percent over the past 10 years while debt payments doubled and revenues mostly from automobile tolls failed to keep up.
Car tolls were last increased over five years ending in 2010.
The watchdog agency Authorities Budget Office reported in July that the Thruway is $14 billion in debt, adding about 10 percent last year alone. The report also said that 130 of the Thruway Authority's 3,293 employees were paid more than $100,000 with an average of more than $53,000.
Public hearings are scheduled for Thursday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Buffalo-Erie Public Library in Buffalo; from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday in the Hilton Hotel in East Syracuse; and from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Hilton Garden Inn in Newburgh.