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Cashless tolling construction begins on the state Thruway: How it will impact drivers

  • Construction began this week on a $355 million phase of expansion of cashless tolling to the state Thruway.
  • By the end of 2020, motorists will pay their tolls by driving underneath overhead tolling gantries.
  • E-ZPass users will have their accounts automatically charged. Others will get a bill in the mail.
  • Also in 2020: A freeze on toll rates is set to expire, leading some to wonder if a hike is coming.

ALBANY – What happens when New York expands a major new tolling system across the entire state at the same time a freeze on toll prices is set to expire?

Motorists are about to find out.

Construction crews began work this week on a $355 million phase of an expansion of the Thruway's cashless-tolling system, which is being applied to the 450-mile tolled stretch of the superhighway by the end of 2020.

The expansion marks a transformational change for the historic Thruway, which has connected the state's major cities for 65 years and relied on human toll takers in booths for its entire existence.

Work began this week at five interchanges in the Albany and Syracuse area and will spread to the rest of the Thruway over the next year, according to a newly launched Thruway Authority website dedicated to tracking the project's progress.

Once the project is complete, motorists will travel through overhead tolling gantries at highway speeds rather than having to stop at a traditional toll booth, with the state charging their E-ZPass account or mailing a bill to their home.

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It is the centerpiece of what is shaping up to be a major year for the highway system — one that will also see a state-subsidized toll freeze expire, leaving some fearful the first toll hike since 2010 could be in the offing.

Matthew Driscoll, executive director of the Thruway Authority, said cashless tolling is an "historic project which will transform travel on the Thruway," but the agency hasn't yet signaled whether a toll increase is coming.

"By the end of 2020, all Thruway motorists will enjoy seamless travel and a faster commute to their destination," he said in a statement.

A big year for the New York Thruway

Cars pass under the cashless-toll gantry on the New York State Thruway at the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge photographed on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.

By the end of 2020, three major initiatives that will affect New York drivers are set to take effect or sunset:

  • The cashless-tolling expansion will see the system implemented across all of Interstate 87 and Interstate 90, joining the Thruway's seven existing cashless-tolling sites, including the Yonkers-to-Harriman stretch of I-87, the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge and the Grand Island bridges.
  • The state's toll freeze will expire. It was made possible by an infusion of $2 billion in state funding approved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers in recent years.
  • Some drivers with older license plates will have to swap them out to ensure the cashless tolling cameras can read them, though the details of that plan remain in flux.

The cashless-tolling expansion is a "big undertaking," acknowledged Robert Megna, a member of the Thruway Board of Directors and a former state budget director.

The idea behind the system is to ease traffic congestion and increase convenience for drivers, who will no longer have to stop at toll booths to pick up a ticket or hand over payment.

But the state's prior efforts to launch cashless tolling — most notably at the Mario Cuomo Bridge — were not without their difficulties.

When the bridge opened with cashless tolling in 2017, some motorists quickly racked up hundreds or thousands of dollars in fines for failing to pay a bill mailed to their home, with some drivers saying they never received the bills in the first place.

Since then, the Thruway Authority reduced the fine from $100 to $50 amid criticism from drivers and lawmakers.

Megna said the authority has had plenty of practice with the seven existing cashless tolling sites to ensure they get the expansion right.

"There are still kinks that have to be worked out," he said. "But I think we're in a pretty good place. I do have confidence in Thruway."

Mike Elmendorf, president and CEO of the state Associated General Contractors, said his organization — which represents the construction industry — sees benefit in cashless tolling, calling it an "exciting project" that will help ease traffic.

But he sounded concern that the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the expansion could come at the expense of fixing road and bridge conditions on the toll highway.

"We continue to believe that it is critical to address and prioritize the core needs of our transportation systems and not push them back in the interest of exciting signature projects," Elmendorf said.

Other states already have cashless tolling

Cars exiting the New York State Thruway at Exit 10 slow down as they exit to 9W in South Nyack on Friday, August 9, 2019.

The idea of tolling without collection booths may seem like a new idea, borne of the smartphone age. But it is actually much older and has roots in Westchester County.

Hastings-on-Hudson resident and eventual Nobel laureate William Vickery came up with the idea of using transponders and receivers on toll roads in 1959.

A Canadian-born professor of economics at Columbia University, Vickery also developed the idea of congestion pricing, or the ability to change the price of a toll lane based on traffic demands. That concept will launch in Midtown and Lower Manhattan as soon as 2021.

New York is far from the first state to implement cashless tolling.

Several others, including neighboring Massachusetts, have transitioned to electronic toll collection in recent years. 

Texas started the use of transponder-style tolling in 1989, making it the first in the country to adopt the technology. In 2007, it took another leap and experimented with removing human toll-takers and tried all-electronic tolling on some of its roads.

The early trial in Texas exposed some of the issues that have followed cashless tolling wherever it is put in place, with the system that captured license plates showing problems from the start, according to a study by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority.

The technology has advanced but the issues have persisted, in some cases.

The Thruway Authority wrestled with a similar plate-reader problem in its early foray into cashless tolling. In 2016, the system misread 3,600 license plates, an issue that may have led to people receiving tolls for trips they never took.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly cited the need to ensure New York license plates are readable by cashless-tolling cameras as he's pushed a plan to require drivers to swap out older, unreadable license plates.

Cuomo has since scaled back his original plan — which would have mandated drivers' with decade-old plates to swap them out at a cost of at least $25 beginning in April — amid an uproar from drivers and lawmakers.

Instead, Cuomo has said the state will come up with a system in which older plates are inspected to ensure they're still readable.

Toll hike is politically difficult

A Thruway toll booth at the Batavia exit.

The outrage over Cuomo's license-plate plan could serve as foreshadowing should the Thruway Authority decide to increase tolls on the highway system.

The authority tried to increase tolls on commercial traffic once before under Cuomo's tenure, abandoning the plan amid pushback from truckers.

Since then, Cuomo's administration has staved off toll hikes by sending $2 billion in state funding to the Thruway Authority, supplementing its budget and ensuring the toll freeze stays in place through 2020.

Now, a toll advisory panel is considering what the toll on the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge should be once that freeze expires.

The $4 billion bridge, which was backed by toll-supported bonds and replaced the Tappan Zee Bridge in the Hudson Valley in 2017, has a $5 toll on its eastbound span. 

A hint as to whether tolls will increase throughout the Thruway system could come in November, when the authority releases its 2020 budget with a long-range financial forecast that extends into 2021 and beyond.

Sen. David Carlucci, D-Clarkstown, Rockland County, said he opposes any toll increase on the Hudson Valley bridge.

"We need to have fair taxation, a progressive tax code in New York state, and raising fees and tolls is the most regressive thing you can do and it hurts working families the hardest," he said.

Megna, who formerly served as Cuomo's budget director, said it's too soon to say whether there will be a system-wide toll increase.

He pointed to recent actions by the Thruway board to explore refinancing some of its debt from the Mario Cuomo Bridge, a move the authority's staff hopes could save it $300 million through 2032.

"I've been around long enough to know that nothing is inevitable," Megna said of a potential toll hike.

More:New York thinks it can save $300M on its Mario Cuomo Bridge debt. Here's how.

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Two phases of cashless tolling construction

Construction of the infrastructure for the cashless-tolling expansion has moved quickly. 

In June, a consortium of contractors — known as Cashless Tolling Constructors LLC — won a $355 million contract to design and build the overhead gantries and rip out the toll booths.

Another $79 million will go to Kapsch TrafficCom for cameras and the software to run them, as well as technical support.

A third company, Conduent, operates the cashless-tolling system on the Thruway and New York City crossings.

Conduent, which remains under contract with the Thruway through 2020 and is a major player in the electronic-tolling industry, has been a frequent source of driver criticism both in New York and in other states, including Maryland and Texas.

Motorists can expect to see the cashless tolling construction in two phases.

The first phase began this week, with crews starting to prepare sites for the overhead gantries. Those gantries will be installed over the coming year and include cameras designed to capture images of license plates at high speeds. 

The Thruway expects to turn on those cashless tolling sites at the same time by the end of 2020, at which time the existing toll booths will remain in place — albeit unstaffed.

The second phase, which will come in 2021 and perhaps beyond, will see the traditional toll booths removed. That will then allow motorists to travel more quickly on and off Thruway exits.

JCAMPBELL1@gannett.com

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