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Panel Listens To Area Residents On The Future Of Mario Cuomo Bridge Tolls

WAMC, Allison Dunne

A newly formed Toll Advisory Panel that will review toll rates on the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge held two listening sessions this week. The New York State Thruway Authority hosted the first session in Westchester Wednesday. WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne attended the second session in Rockland County Thursday.

The panel will be reviewing toll rates as well as resident and commuter discount programs and commercial vehicle rates for the 3.1-mile span connecting Westchester and Rockland Counties. The current cash toll is $5; for New York E-ZPass account holders, it’s $4.75. According to a Thruway Authority spokesperson, 14 people spoke at the Westchester session in Tarrytown. The Rockland session in Nyack saw about 50 attendees, with 35 addressing the panel. Both sessions ran from 4:30 to 7:30.  Kamdyn Moore, founding member of Rockland United, has numerous concerns, including the sessions’ timing.

“To have panel that is timed from 4:30-7:30, the majority of those impacted are on the bridge. They’re stuck in traffic,” Moore says. “Whether they like it or not, they are, they are demonstrating that they actually do not care what is happening to the community members here in this county, or in Westchester.”

The Nyack resident says the current toll is unaffordable, let alone an increase.

“I had also expressed to the panel that I would commute to New Jersey to take a ferry, I would drive 45 minutes to take a ferry, pay for parking, take a ferry to the city to commute; all of that revenue actually going the state of New Jersey, not New York state, because it was cheaper, it was more affordable and it was faster," says Moore. "To get across the bridge, which is out my back door, it is 30 minutes at least in morning traffic, rush hour traffic, and that, quite frankly, is unacceptable.”

Thruway Authority Executive Director Matthew Driscoll:

“This is really just the beginning of a, what’ll be a very long process. As we know, tolls are frozen through the end of 2020. And I really felt it was important for the panel members and myself to come out and start listening to members of the communities,” Driscoll says. “And so we chose here in Rockland County and in Westchester County to begin that process, but we are a long, long way from any final decisions.”

Democratic state Senator David Carlucci, whose 38th District includes the Rockland side of the bridge, is calling for no toll hike. Mary Mueller is Carlucci’s spokesperson.

“Rockland commuters can’t afford a toll hike. There just can’t be one. We’re talking about people who are paying more than $12,000 a year in property taxes. The minimum wage in 2020 is going to be at $12.50. How do you expect the bridge to be more than the hourly minimum wage or even half of that,” Mueller says. “Right now, our local economy is dependent on people being able to cross this bridge.”

Mueller attended the Thursday session as Carlucci had previous plans.

“Senator Carlucci was given less than a week’s notice, and he’s a state senator, to come to this meeting. Most residents said they didn’t even know about it until they got an email from our office,” says Mueller. “It’s pretty disappointing that the Thruway Authority didn’t do more to notify people in our community when this bridge is taken by millions of commuters that this was happening because this toll is going to mean a lot to people’s wallets.”

A spokesman for Republican Rockland County Executive Ed Day says the county executive also wanted to attend in person, but had prior plans, and was unappreciative of such short notice. The Thruway Authority’s Driscoll responds.

“So we, we’ve been advertising that. I’m sorry they had plans to be elsewhere, but I understand that,” says Driscoll. “Their representatives were here and their comments are a part of the official record.”

Day’s chief of staff along with Rockland’s director of economic growth and tourism attended. Day has long stated that any increased toll must include a significantly reduced toll rate for Rockland residents, lower than an E-ZPass discount. A number of residents also want to see that type of discount. Mario Cilento, a 15-year Rockland resident who calls Blauvelt home, is president of the AFL-CIO and a toll advisory panel member.

“The concerns of the people who were here tonight as well as the people in Westchester County last night are very pertinent, I think, to the conversation,” Cilento says. “How is it going to affect someone who goes over that bridge every day? How does it affect someone who’s on a steady income or even a fixed income we’ve seen in a lot of instances? We talk about the elderly and we talk about those who are still in school. So everything that we’ve heard the last two days I think will be very helpful in us forming a recommendation moving forward.”

Other panel members are co-chair Robert Megna, who is chief operating officer for the State University of New York and a former executive director of the Thruway Authority; President and CEO of the Business Council of New York State Heather Briccetti; and Westchester County Director of Operations Joan McDonald, a former state Department of Transportation commissioner.

New City resident and retiree Sheryl Lerner teaches high school equivalency. She says a big jump in the toll could prevent her from doing this work.

“I think they should keep it for the commuters as low as they can because commuters are working people,” Lerner says. “Either that or give us a tax credit for working people.”

Driscoll describes what’s next.

“So I’m going to give the committee a couple weeks, at least, to consider and digest what they’ve heard here. And then we’ll talk amongst ourselves about some of the ideas that have been floated,” says Driscoll. “I think there’s been very good suggestions both in Westchester County last night and here this evening as well, so there’s a lot to consider.”

Rockland’s Day also is concerned about how the state will pay for the nearly $4 billion bridge, including repayment of a $1.6 billion federal loan. He does not want the funding to come on the backs of Rockland residents who have few viable transportation options other than driving across the bridge.

Democratic Westchester Assemblyman Tom Abinanti represents the Tarrytown side of the bridge. He wants to see a fair formula for allocating Thruway Authority costs that would result in a fair toll. He calculates that using certain approaches could result in car tolls around $6 or $7, even less with local resident discounts. Meantime, Driscoll says it’s way too early to consider a deadline to decide on tolls.

“No, it’s much too premature, as I say tolls are frozen through 2020, and I’m really starting to think about how I build a budget over the course of the next couple of years,” says Driscoll.  “So, this is really just the very beginning, but I thought it would be very helpful for the panel members and myself to hear directly from folks that live in the communities, both in Westchester and in Rockland, before we even get into the data portion. So I think this has been a good exercise for the panel members.”

Driscoll says New Yorkers can email comments, with no closing date.

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