New York Thruway Isn’t Ready For Cashless Tolls

Mass overhaul of highway’s roads and bridges should be the priority

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The old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I don’t think anyone would use that infamous expression when referencing the road conditions of the New York State Thruway. You’re probably more likely to hear things like “It was so rough I almost went off the road” or “I might need new suspension now.”

And while construction repairs and upgrades are quite regular on the 570-mile highway system, there is a lot of talk lately about a significant upgrade that actually has nothing to do with the road itself — cashless tollbooths.

Yes, the toll plazas that have littered the thruway since the first segment of the road was completed in the mid-1950s may be completely transformed in the next few years so only electronic money transfers can be used. All tolls would be paid for by either a motorist’s E-Z Pass or by photographing their license plate and receiving a bill in the mail.

The system has already been implemented in some densely populated downstate areas, like on the Tappan Zee Bridge between Rockland and Westchester counties, and is being planned in more New York City locations. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo and State Transportation Department officials have pledged to expand cashless tolls upstate so that the entire thruway is equipped with them.

Now, there’s little doubt that cashless tolling is the inevitable future of the thruway. Other states have been slowly implementing similar systems — it is currently used on the entire Interstate-90 stretch across neighboring Massachusetts. And use of the E-Z Pass over cash has soared since they were introduced in New York in 1993. Cashless tolling would also cut back congestion at busy exits and interchanges, which would improve commute times and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and accidents. Who can argue with that?

So, we’ll eventually get to that point. Gov. Cuomo is correct to assert that cashless tolling statewide is a matter of when, not if.

But the underlying question is this: Is that “when” right now?

The current conditions of the road clearly answer that question.

The cost of revamping all of the toll plazas along I-90 and I-87 south of Albany would be extraordinary. The current structures would have to be dismantled and replaced with gantries that need to be wired with electronic equipment and cameras. And there would need to be offices for people to process the license plates of vehicles that come through and send bills to those drivers’ homes.

The estimated cost? Anywhere between $500 and $600 million — an amount that, adjusted for inflation, is actually 10 percent of what it cost to build the entire New York State Thruway system half a century ago. A cashless system project on a 45-mile stretch of road from Yonkers to Orange County was by itself budgeted for $31 million.

While the long-term benefits of cashless tolls make spending that kind of money appealing, that money would be better invested in projects that are more necessary right now — mainly overhauling the system’s crumbling infrastructure.

The thruway is a rapidly aging highway that requires much more attention than it is getting. Mike Elmendorf, CEO of the Associated General Contractors, estimates that the New York Thruway Authority should be reconstructing about 100 lane miles and 30 bridges every year just to maintain the interstate in its current condition. And that isn’t happening. In a lot of circumstances, some major reconstruction projects turn into simple patch work, essentially putting more band-aides on, which will end up costing more in the long run once those band-aides can no longer do the job.

Since roads and bridges are taken for granted in our daily lives, it’s easy for us to forget just how dire their situation is. A 2015 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers’ New York State Council graded the conditions of different types of infrastructure in New York by using a simple report card-like structure. Bridges received a grade of D+ and roads got a D-.

Specifically, more than 50 percent of New York’s bridges are 75 years old, and 2,012 of them are classified as “structurally deficient” and require consistent maintenance or improvements to safely operate for freight and commuters. And one-third of New York’s major highways are considered to be in poor or fair condition.

The thruway is a valuable artery in that web of infrastructure needs. The Thruway Authority estimates it will need $3.4 billion to fund road and bridge upgrades over the next 20 years. The current construction in Onondaga County between exits 35 and 39 — a less than 10-mile stretch — alone costs $9.9 million.

Inadequate funding and modest construction work will only leave infrastructure further neglected, meaning certain bridges could be forced to close or become weight-restricted, which would cause much more traffic headaches and economic disruption to the region than toll plazas that still collect cash from motorists.

The bottom line is this. Cashless tolls aren’t going to be that useful if parts of the road that’s being tolled can’t be used. They may be the wave of the future, but ensuring a vital piece of road like the New York State Thruway remains fully functional and up-to-date is the more pressing matter of the present.

Luke Parsnow is a digital producer at CNY Central (WSTM NBC 3/WTVH CBS 5/WSTM CW6) and contributing writer at The Syracuse New Times in Syracuse, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

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