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Oh, SmAlbany!

Daily posts and occasional longer essays about politics, culture, and life in the Capital Region...updated M-F, midmorning


"I write this not as a booster of Albany, which I am, nor an apologist for the city, which I sometimes am, but rather as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs..." -W. Kennedy, from O Albany!

Thruway tolls...

...have been raised for the first time since 1988. As the TU reports today:
The toll increase, the first since 1988, is 25 percent for passenger cars and 35 percent for trucks paying commercial rates. Also on Sunday, the Thruway's first discount for customers who pay tolls electronically with E-ZPass took effect. The discount is 10 percent for cars, making the net increase 12.5 percent for E-ZPass users, and 5 percent for trucks, making the typical increase 28 percent for commercial E-ZPass users.
This, in itself, is not an awful thing. Tolls can't stay the same rate forever, and a 12.5% increase after 17 years is reasonable. Two facts, however, make the increase rather annoying:
The Thruway Authority plans to use the new tolls to help fund a $2.6 billion, six-year capital plan for repairs and modernization of toll-collection systems on the 641-mile road system and state canals.
Again, in itsef, not awful. But the Thruway was orginially built to be a toll-free road after enough tolls were collected such that the originial construction of the road was paid for. That's partially how the construction was passed through the legislature. Of course, when the construction was finally paid off (about 10 years ago), the legislature simply amended the law to continue the tolls. And it is unlikely they will ever go away.

Now, I'm not saying tolls are bad. They shift the tax burden toward those who use the service, which is probably a good thing. However, the lesson here is that long-term projects started by the state cannot be trusted to follow the revenue/payment plans with which they are orignially designed. Keep this in mind when you evaluate such plans. Don't fall for it - the tolls are never temporary! I'm not saying we shouldn't have built the Thruway. I'm saying that you should give zero weight to arguments like "it will be toll-free eventually."

Problem #2:
During the first week of May, shortly after the new discount program was approved, Thruway officials say they saw E-ZPass enrollment jump 23 percent over the same week last year.
Again, in itself, E-ZPass is a great thing. But mark my words, the end result of most people switching to E-ZPass is going to be higher tolls due to the invisibility of the costs. When you don't have to actually take $4 out of your pocket upon going through the toll, it makes it far, far easier for the state to raise the tolls without an outcry. This is similar in the shift to periodic collection of income tax by the federal government after WW2. In the old days, nothing was taken out of your check - you just got a bill from the goverment at the end of the year. After the war, the feds decided to take periodic chunks out of payroll checks. In itself, a great idea. No one would go into debt to pay their taxes. But the end result was that the invisibility of the taxes - the lack of a shot to the gut on the day you owed them - made it far easier for the taxes to be raised.

I fear E-ZPass will have the same effect.
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