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Kolb: Put state DOT in charge of Thruway

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Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2012 5:00 am

Amid a flurry of mysteriously canceled board meetings and the threat of a toll increase, Brian Kolb says the New York State Thruway Authority is stuck in the breakdown lane.

Now, he thinks he has found just the tow truck to haul it away. In fact, the Authority is such a clunker that he wants to make that tow a permanent hitch.

Kolb, R-129 of Canandaigua, the Assembly’s minority leader, has introduced a bill to merge the Authority and the state Department of Transportation (DOT), leaving the DOT firmly in the driver’s seat.

“The Thruway Authority is not working,” Kolb said in a press release. “It’s not working for taxpayers, motorists, trucking companies or New York being open for business. The currently proposed 45 percent toll hike on trucks would actually be the fifth toll hike since 2004. As a frame of reference, in the first 50 years of the Thruway, there were only four toll increases. Clearly, the problems at the Authority are so severe, the lack of accountability so systemic, the fiscal irresponsibility so breathtaking, we need to hit the reset button and start over.”

In other words, the Authority is like a rusted-out wreck that’s costing more money to maintain than it’s worth.

Kolb’s Thruway Authority Accountability Act would make the Authority a unit of the DOT. The current Authority board would be dissolved, and new board members would have to have transportation experience. The DOT commissioner would chair the new board.

Also:

• A forensic audit of the Authority’s finances would be done every three years, with the results made public.

• Proposed toll hikes, and the reasons for them, would have to be clearly identified in the DOT’s budget.

• None of the Authority’s 3,000 employees could be terminated as a result of the merger. Instead, savings would be achieved through attrition and by consolidating overlapping functions.

Kolb hopes the bill will draw bipartisan support. If he wants it to pass, it will need to. Democrats control the Assembly and the governor’s mansion, and six of the Authority’s seven board members are Democratic appointees.

That last fact alone might seem likely to doom any Republican-initiated reform plan, and especially one that would dissolve the current board.

Nonetheless, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has sounded less than happy with the Authority in recent days. During a radio appearance, the governor urged the authority to raise tolls only as a last resort and said he wanted to see a financial restructuring of the agency.

According to news reports, he even said he would be open to the idea of a merger.

That stops well short of a pledge to push for consolidation, but it does indicate a willingness to at least put Authority reform on the table. Of course, Cuomo also said legislators would probably oppose a merger because of union issues, which sounds a lot like a kiss of death.

Assuming reform moves forward, would it do any good? Running a road system like the Thruway does cost money, after all. It needs repairs, snow-plowing, grass-mowing and other infrastructure work. The cost of all that could conceivable justify the toll increases.

If it does, the merged entity would face the same problems, and the same public scorn, as the old Authority.

If it doesn’t, merging the Authority and the DOT would reveal awfully fast just how much excess money the Authority had been collecting. That alone might justify the merger in the minds of some motorists — and might lead a few of them to ask for refunds instead of forking over their money the next time they pass through a toll booth.

Jim Miller’s “Eye on Government” appears on Sundays in the Finger Lakes Times. Contact Miller at 789-3333, ext. 258, or jmiller@ fltimes.com.

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