If the MTA Has $500 Million in Its Back Pocket, Why Have We Waited So Long for Open Road Tolling?

Image: governor.ny.gov

There has been talk of all-electronic, open road tolling on MTA crossings since the late 1990s, and Tri-State has been a proponent of AET for almost as long. But while other parts of the country have implemented barrier-free, cashless tolling — Florida’s Turnpike, the North Texas Tollway in Dallas and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco all phased out toll booths — it’s been deployed in only a handful of places in the Northeast. E-ZPass users are probably familiar with the non-stop tolling lanes on the New York Thruway and the New Jersey Turnpike, but the region’s only fully cashless tolled facility — where those without E-ZPass transponders receive a bill in the mail — is the MTA-operated Henry Hudson Bridge.

That will soon change, as Governor Cuomo announced this week that AET will be implemented on all of the MTA’s bridges and tunnels by 2018.

That the switch to AET on MTA crossings is coming soon is a good thing. Cashless tolling eliminates the congestion caused by drivers stopping to pay tolls with cash, improves safety by reducing the “weaving and lane-jockeying” associated with toll plazas, and has air quality benefits too.

But how it will be paid for is a little fuzzy. Stephen Miller writes in the Village Voice:

Of the nearly $2.9 billion set aside for bridges and tunnels in the capital program, only $206 million is for toll plazas and “intelligent transportation systems,” well short of the new project’s $500 million price tag. The capital plan doesn’t mention expanding cashless tolls; instead, it includes $82 million to finish the job on the Henry Hudson Bridge and $89 million to maintain state of good repair at the existing toll plazas.

The bridges and tunnels capital budget would accommodate the $500 million toll overhaul, said MTA spokesperson Beth DeFalco, through “efficiencies generated from other projects, including reductions from toll plaza work that did not assume open road tolling as the means of toll collection.”

In this case, a quirk of the MTA’s capital budget process might help Cuomo escape public scrutiny. Although most of the MTA’s capital plan is subject to approval by the Capital Program Review Board, which rejected previous plans over a lack of funding, projects within the bridge and tunnel budget do not require the CPRB’s stamp of approval.

The potential for financial sleight of hand worries watchdogs, who see it as a symptom of the governor’s last-minute decision to bigfoot the MTA’s capital program. “Somebody outside the process is saying, ‘Hey, I like this idea. Let’s add this to the capital plan,’ ” Brecher said. “It’s not consistent with the way you want to do longer-run capital investment planning.”

Transparency isn’t the first word that comes to mind when we think of major transportation projects in New York. After the state budget was passed, it took four months for the state department of transportation to release the list of projects in its five-year capital plan. And don’t get us started on the mysterious, unconventional financing plan for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project. Project descriptions in the MTA capital program are vague, so it’s hard to say whether everything the governor announced this week is funded in the plan. That being said, it appears that the $500 million the governor announced for new open road, electronic toll infrastructure (as well as LED lighting upgrades) could come from the the projects already listed in capital program. However, without a much more detailed accounting of how money is intended to be spent, there is, not surprisingly, some uncertainty. At the very least, the governor and the MTA must work out a way to make the conversion to AET without shortchanging the transit system.

Besides the immediate benefits of AET, the change could play a small part in helping expand tolling in Connecticut, where there has been some progress, albeit glacial, toward instituting congestion-based road pricing. Tolls have been somewhat taboo in Connecticut, even though the state has some of the nation’s worst congestion and its Special Transportation Fund is projected to be facing a $92 million shortfall in three years’ time. Legislators’ opposition to tolls was once (at least partially) based on the erroneous assertion that the state was going to reintroduce toll booths to the state’s roads, which justifiably worries some older Nutmeggers (Connecticut removed toll plazas in the 1980s after six people were killed by a tractor-trailer driver who crashed into a line of vehicles waiting to pay a toll in Stratford).

Now that the MTA’s bridges and tunnels are going all-electronic — along with the Massachusetts Turnpike, which will complete the switch to AET by the end of this month — Connecticut drivers who travel through Massachusetts or New York City will get a better sense of what safe, modern, barrier-free tolling could look like at home. It’s probably easier for Connecticut drivers (and lawmakers) to get behind open road tolling if it’s not a completely foreign concept.

3 Comments on "If the MTA Has $500 Million in Its Back Pocket, Why Have We Waited So Long for Open Road Tolling?"

  1. What makes America a free country? The abundance of options. I don’t see how eliminating the cash option is a good thing. Privacy problems aside, if you drive in a rental car, you will be billed heavily by the car rental .Are you going to pay for it?

    Instead of investing in “21st century” gimmicks like “open road tolling”, hanging LEDs over bridges and spying on everyone driving through a crossing, do your 20th century homework first and have the full Second Avenue Subway done in a reasonable cost!

  2. Erik Engquist | October 11, 2016 at 9:58 am |

    Waiting in traffic does not make America a free country.

  3. It’s all about emissions

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