DiNapoli: Toll Hikes Not Justified
State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli today released his audit of the State Thruway Authority and said the Thruway Authority should call off its proposed July 2008 toll hike. DiNapoli also said the Thruway should postpone future hikes until it has conducted a thorough analysis of its expenses and operations and prioritized capital projects. The audit examined whether the calculations used in justifying proposed toll increases in July 2008, January 2009, July 2009 and January 2010 were accurate and reasonable.
“It’s easy to raise tolls, but the Thruway Authority should take a hard look in the mirror before it pushes another toll hike on New Yorkers,” DiNapoli said. “Toll hikes are not warranted until the Thruway Authority examines its own spending. The Thruway is too important to the upstate economy to unnecessarily raise tolls and drive up the cost of everything from milk to heating oil, not to mention the impact on commuters. The Thruway Authority manages the roads well, but it could manage its finances a whole lot better.”
DiNapoli said his office would engage in additional audits of the Thruway Authority’s operations and finances this year.
“Comptroller DiNapoli is to be commended for investigating and bringing to light Thruway Authority mismanagement that many of us have long suspected to be true,” said Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-27). “Travelers along the Thruway are forced to pay for maintenance and improvements twice, once in the federal gas tax, which is paid by consumers and passed down to the Authority, and again through tolls. This audit confirms that the Authority is significantly underestimating the federal funding they receive as a means of justifying the need for a toll increase. This report should serve as a basis for sweeping reforms at the Thruway Authority.”
"I would like to thank State Comptroller DiNapoli for auditing the New York State Thruway Authority," said Senator Dale M. Volker. "We all understand that the upstate economy is facing challenges, and any new toll increases would certainly devastate the rejuvenation of the upstate/western New York economic region. I strongly agree that this audit identifies several opportunities for the New York State Thruway Authority to save significant dollars that would allow them to run more efficiently and effectively, therefore mitigating any toll increases. As indicated by Comptroller DiNapoli, further investigation may be warranted to ensure that operations at the New York State Thruway Authority are being managed in the best possible manner. We all should welcome this report and learn from it."
The Thruway Authority increased tolls five times prior to 2005: 1959, 1970, 1975, 1980 and 1988. Since 2005, the Thruway has already increased tolls twice and is proposing four additional increases. DiNapoli noted that while the recently implemented January 2008 toll increase might have been avoided, the proceeds of that toll increase are already legally pledged to pay for $2 billion the Thruway Authority has already borrowed.
The Thruway Authority Board is considering a series of toll increases that would take effect from July 2008 through January 2010. The board will be holding hearings on the proposed hikes. These proposed toll increases are expected to generate a total of $520 million in additional revenue. Thruway Authority officials say the revenue is needed to cover cash shortfalls projected over the next five years caused by a reduction in traffic growth and an increase in the use of E-ZPass discounts. Part of the revenue is also needed for the Thruway Authority’s $2.7 billion capital plan, which extends through 2011.
DiNapoli initiated the Thruway Authority audit in November at the request of several state and federal leaders. A policy report on the Thruway Authority and two additional audits were also released today that examined uncollected tolls from E-ZPass violators (Report 2006-S-101) and financial practices at the state Canal Corporation (2005-S-66).
The review of the Thruway Authority’s finances found:
- Significantly Underestimated Federal Funding: The Thruway Authority estimated that it would receive only $4.9 million in federal highway funding a year, even though its past average was $33.5 million a year. Auditors determined that the Thruway Authority could conservatively estimate an additional $125.3 million in federal funding between 2008 and 2012.
- No Aggressive Cost-Cutting Measures: The Thruway Authority plans to limit its annual operating growth to 3.5 percent but has not implemented serious cost-reduction measures. Auditors found that current efforts appear to be geared towards maintaining current levels of spending rather than reducing costs. In the absence of a comprehensive, top-to-bottom analysis of Thruway Authority operating expenses, it is unclear whether waste, inefficiencies and unnecessary costs are being incurred and at what levels.
- Uncollected E-ZPass Tolls and Fees: The Thruway Authority did not collect $27.5 million in unpaid tolls and penalties over a six-year period, according to a second audit also released today. While most of the delinquent motorists owed the Thruway Authority $20 or less, 82 violators (mostly businesses) owed $2,500 or more in unpaid tolls. One out-of-state trucking company was cited for 2,226 violations and owes $59,159 in unpaid tolls.
- No Prioritization of Capital Projects: Auditors identified $160 million in non-essential capital projects, such as rehabilitating maintenance buildings, noise barriers and pedestrian bridges, that could be delayed to save money. The capital plan contains 300 individual projects but no effort has been made to prioritize these projects even though some are clearly less critical than others.
- High Spending on Non-Thruway Operations: Since 1990, the Thruway Authority has spent more than $1 billion on non-Thruway operations such as the Canal System ($700.4 million) and mandated economic development projects ($61.4 million). Between 2008 and 2012, the Thruway Authority estimates it will spend nearly $395 million on the canal system alone.
- Canal Corp Revitalization Projects Over Budget and Behind Schedule: Another audit released today found that the Canal Corporation was $17 million, or about 49 percent, over budget and at least two years behind schedule on various community revitalization projects that are part of the Canalway Trail.
The three audits contain a series of recommendations including:
- Perform a comprehensive, top-to-bottom analysis of operations to identify where costs can be reduced. This analysis should always be performed prior to any proposed toll increase.
- Use a collection agency or some other means to improve the collection of delinquent E-ZPass tolls.
- Evaluate the benefits of raising revenue through private sector advertising and sponsorship.
- Include a reasonable estimate for future federal highway funding in funding projections.
- Base all equipment replacement estimates on documented needs assessments.
- Develop management reports showing the progress and dollars spent on each capital project.
- Prioritize the projects in future capital plans to facilitate any adjustments needed in response to unanticipated funding shortages.
- Identify the non-essential capital projects that are scheduled for 2008 through 2012, determine which of those projects can be deferred until after 2012, and determine how the Authority’s funding needs would be affected if the projects were deferred.
- Document the basis for the inflationary increases in construction contracts.
DiNapoli recommended that the canal system be removed from the Thruway Authority’s operations and that a feasible, long-term solution for financing, managing and planning the future of the canal system be developed.
In its response to the audit, the Thruway Authority generally agreed with the facts of the audit but disagreed with many of the conclusions. The Thruway Authority noted that “the public review process has only begun and that the recommendations contained in this draft audit will be used, along with the public’s input, to shape a toll adjustment…” The Thruway Authority’s full response is included in the audit.
Click here to view the audit on the Thruway Authority's proposed toll increases.
Click here to view the audit on uncollected E-ZPass tolls and fees.
Click here to view the Canal Corporation audit.
Click here for a copy of the policy report.