Joseph Spector, Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY – Uncollected tolls on the New York State Thruway spiked at its 58 toll plazas over the past five years — even as the superhighway slowly shifts to a cashless toll system that critics fear will lead to more lost revenue.
Uncollected tolls on the 570-mile thoroughfare jumped 23 percent between 2013 and 2014, the most recent records provided by the state Thruway Authority showed.
That translated to a loss of $2.5 million in revenue for an agency that is strapped for cash as it tries to stave off toll increases and build a $3.9 billion new Tappan Zee Bridge between Westchester and Rockland counties.
In the mid-Hudson Valley, uncollected tolls spiked in 2014 after four years of declines. At Exit 18 in New Paltz, there were 20,253 toll violations from 2010 to 2014 accounting for $112,107.20 in lost revenue. The number of violations fell from 5,376 in 2010 to 3,408 in 2013, but rose in 2014 to 3,842.
At Exit 19 in Kingston, violations fell from 2010 to 2014. There were 24,879 toll violations from 2010 to 2014 accounting for $174,315.55 in lost revenue. The number of violations fell from 7,200 in 2010 to 4,911 in 2014.
The fifth largest loss of revenue across the Thruway system was at Exit 17 in Newburgh. From 2010 to 2014, $668,244.35 in revenue was lost and there were 81,644 violations. Violations fell from 17,985 in 2010 to 14,639 in 2013, but spiked in 2014 to 15,724.
While the revenue loss is a small part of the authority’s $2 billion budget, some state lawmakers said the Thruway should do more to recoup the uncollected tolls and reconsider the cashless toll system.
Also, the Thruway has offered little new information about its toll scofflaws after the USA Today Network’s Albany Bureau waited a year for its Freedom of Information request to be filled.
Between 2010 and 2014, nearly $11 million went uncollected at Thruway toll booths, the records showed, an increase of 11 percent over that span.
“There’s a lot of money that’s out there that is either not being collected or it’s being spent in the wrong places,” said Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, Ontario County.
Thruway officials defended their efforts, saying they’ve increased penalties in recent months. The Thruway’s budget also accounts for some drivers getting away without paying tolls in its budget each year.
In January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave the state Department of Motor Vehicles the ability to suspend the registration of motorists who fail to pay five tolls, fees and other charges over 18 months.
Cuomo recognized the problem facing the state to nab toll evaders, saying merely sending them a series of fines that can be ignored wasn’t good enough.
“We are sending a clear message that New York state will not tolerate toll violators,” Cuomo said in a statement at the time. “For far too long, these scofflaws have skirted their responsibility of helping maintain the state’s transportation network and placed the burden on the backs of law-abiding motorists.”
Thruway spokeswoman Jennifer Givner said because Thruway traffic has increased in recent years, the actual ratio of toll violators to traffic has declined.
Cuomo said all the state’s tolling authorities — the Thruway, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Bridge Authority through the Hudson Valley and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — had 35,000 cases over the past 18 months where five or more tolls went uncollected.
In total, that meant $16.5 million in lost revenue a year.
“The Thruway Authority will continue to work with our state partners to pursue additional enforcement options to ensure everyone pays their fair share,” Givner said.
Cuomo said with all the state’s tolling authorities — the Thruway, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Bridge Authority through the Hudson Valley, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — had 35,000 cases over the past 18 months where five or more tolls went uncollected.
In total, that meant $16.5 million in lost revenue a year.
Skipping out on tolls has grown at some of the state’s busiest toll plazas, records showed.
The highest amount was at the Tappan Zee Bridge, with nearly $400,000 not collected in 2014, up 28 percent from 2013. Since 2010, $1.7 million has gone uncollected at the bridge.
At the Woodbury plaza in Orange County – which has a cashless toll system along with some full-service toll booths — the uncollected tolls reached nearly $300,000 in 2014, up 4 percent from the prior year.
Three other busy plazas had an increase between 2013 and 2014: $200,000 went uncollected at exit 50 in Buffalo; $145,000 at exit 24 in Albany; and $137,000 at exit 17 in Newburgh.
At some plazas, the increase was stark.
The busy Rochester Exit 45 had a 70 percent increase in uncollected toll money over five years, up to $64,000 in 2014. The uncollected tolls jumped even higher at Exit 48 in Batavia, an increase of 171 percent over the five years to $53,000.
Moving to cashless tolls
A cashless tolling system drew questions over the past year when the Port Authority switched to it on the Henry Hudson Bridge just outside Manhattan.
The problems with the system were immediate: Unpaid tolls hit $40 million in the first two years of the system between 2012 and 2014, the Journal News reported last year.
Some state legislators said they have similar concerns about uncollected tolls on the Tappan Zee Bridge, which moved to the cashless E-ZPass system last spring.
With the new bridge being built, the Thruway Authority removed the toll plazas from the Westchester side and installed the cashless system on the Rockland side.
So if drivers don’t have E-ZPass, they will get a bill in the mail after a camera shot is taken of the license plate. If they fail to pay the bill, fines will ultimately be assessed.
Some state lawmakers complained that the Thruway is offering drivers no options.
“I think you’re turning would-be payers into toll evaders,” said Assemblyman Tom Abinanti, R-Mount Pleasant, Westchester County.
Even before going cashless, the bridge had an increase in unpaid tolls, records obtained by the USA Today Network’s Albany Bureau through a Freedom of Information request showed.
The amount of uncollected tolls on the bridge soared 28 percent between 2010 and 2014, hitting nearly $400,000 in 2014. The toll is $5 roundtrip, and $4.75 with E-Z Pass.
The number of violations issued on the bridge increased 15 percent between 2013 and 2014, with 88,000 toll violations doled out in 2014.
Abinanti questioned why the Thruway would go to the cashless system on the bridge so quickly — especially because it’s the most trafficked location on the Thruway, and as the records show, it has the most evaders.
It’s the only spot on the Thruway that has no toll booths.
“I think it was a mistake to do this,” he said. “I think that we should have a couple of toll booths so that people who want to pay the tolls in cash can do so.”
Abinanti said he’s heard from constituents since the system was put in place about getting toll violations for vehicles they no longer own.
Plus, he said the system is reactive, not proactive: The Thruway has to send bills to people who don’t pay the tolls rather than giving them chance to pay upfront at a toll booth.
Some drivers don’t have credit cards or even checking accounts to sign up for E-ZPass, he said. The only other way to pay is through a money order.
After the increase on evaders on the Henry Hudson Bridge, “why, after that experience, would you go to the high-volume Tappan Zee Bridge, where the numbers are going to be even greater and more out-of-towners are going to be crossing?”
There was no immediate comment from the Thruway on the toll evaders or the concerns about the cashless system on the Tappan Zee Bridge.
The cashless tolls will move the Westchester side following the completion of the New NY Bridge.
Getting a full accounting of the Thruway’s scofflaws proved difficult.
In April 2015, the Albany Bureau filed a FOIL request seeking a list of all toll violations at each Thruway toll plaza in each of the past five years.
The request was fulfilled more than a year later: on June 7.
But because of the delay, the Thruway Authority provided data only from when the request was made: so just through 2014.
When asked by the Albany Bureau to provide the 2015 data, the Thruway was unable to immediately do so.
It also provided no details on whether there has been an increase in toll evaders since the cashless system was put in place at the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the state Committee on Open Government, said a state agency isn’t required to provide data up to when the FOIL response is fulfilled.
But she questioned why a basic data request of toll evaders by toll plaza would take a year for a large state agency to process.
“My bigger problem is that it took a year to get it,” O’Neill said. “A year seems like a long time to provide the data.”
State and local officials have long complained about secrecy around the Thruway Authority’s dealings.
It has yet to detail what the toll structure will be on the new Tappan Zee Bridge, and it has been able to fund its operations and the bridge’s construction largely through a $2 billion infusion of cash from the state’s general coffers over the past two years.
State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has warned the Thruway about its lack of transparency, particularly on the financing for the new bridge.
“This office again urges the Thruway Authority to provide full transparency regarding the financial implications of this important project as soon as possible,” he wrote to the agency in May.
About $11 million of toll revenue went uncollected by the state Thruway Authority between 2010 through 2014, an 11 percent increase.
The state said it’s stepping up enforcement will new penalties.
Here’s a look at the toll plazas that had the most uncollected tolls during the five-year stretch:
Tappan Zee Bridge (exit 9): $1,658,746
Exit 15 (Woodbury): $1,504,200
Exit 50 (Williamsville/Buffalo) $756,124
Exit 24 (Albany): $678,869
Exit 17: (Newburgh): $668,244
New Paltz tolls
2010-14 violations: 20,253
2010-14 uncollected tolls: $112,107.20
2010-14 violations: 24,879
2010-14 uncollected tolls: $174,315.55
2010-14 violations: 81,644
2010-14 uncollected tolls: $668,244.35