CATSKILL — Greene County lawmakers reviewed the governor’s plans to convert the New York State Thruway to cashless tolling.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the project in his 2018 State of the State address. By the end of 2018, seven fixed-priced locations on the Thruway — Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, North and South Grand Isle Bridges, Harriman Toll Barrier, Yonkers Toll Barrier, Spring Valley Toll Barrier and New Rochelle — had been converted. The Massachusetts Turnpike went cashless in 2016.
In place of tollbooths, drivers will pass under gantries that have special sensors, according to thruway,ny,gov. Vehicles equipped with EZ-pass will be automatically charged. Those without EZ-passes will have images of their licenses plates taken and a bill will be mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle.
Legislators want to know if the change would have any impact on Catskill 21 site that is being developed by the Greene County Industrial Development Agency.
The property was formerly home to a Quality Inn, which was demolished in January after months of litigation and setbacks.
Cashless tolling would have minimal impact, Tourism and Economic Development and Planning director Warren Hart said.
“The access road would also have to service the Park & Ride,” Hart said.
County lawmakers unanimously approved a resolution Dec. 19 authorizing the county for reimbursement of up to $50,000 from the state Department of Transportation for a road that will provide access to the property.
Besides Catskill, the Thruway has an exit in Coxsackie and a service area in New Baltimore.
New Baltimore has already begun to prepare for the transition, Town Supervisor Jeff Russo said.
“We have been gearing up for that event since the first of the year,” he said. “Our clerk [Barbara Finke] made arrangements for the town to be a seller of EZ-passes.”
The town’s advertising efforts have led to approximately 20 sales, Russo said.
“There will be a lot of adjustment,” Russo said of the new system. “It will push more people to EZ-pass.”
Coxsackie Town Supervisor Richard Hanse hopes the new system will not cause jobs to be lost, he said.
“I hope the authority will retrain those who would otherwise lose their jobs,” he said. “I would hate to see a loss of jobs, even in the name of efficiency.”
Toll collectors are being offered other opportunities, state Thruway Authority Deputy Director of Communications Jonathan Dougherty said.
“Toll collectors will be needed through the switch to cashless tolling,” he said. “In the meantime, collectors are being considered for options within the Authority and other state agencies. They are also being offered a number of incentives including CDL training, which can be used to obtain jobs within our Maintenance ranks.”
There are many potential benefits to the new system, NYS Thruway Authority Deputy Director of Communications Jonathan Dougherty said.
“The No. 1 benefit is no stopping,” he said. “It’s free-flowing traffic. Cashless tolling will be beneficial to the entire state.”
Columbia Economic Development Corporation President & CEO F. Michael Tucker sees the new system as an economic advantage for all, once the toll collectors are reemployed.
“There will be a reduction in operating costs and maintenance,” he said.
For drivers, the cashless tolling will save them time.
“It will enhance people’s lives and help businesses,” he said. “It will save businesses and shipping firms time and money by expediting the process. The Thruway is safer than driving through city streets.”
On a larger scale, the new system has the potential to reduce emissions and accidents, Tucker said.
“Engines are more efficient at a constant speed than stopping and starting,” he said. “This will lead to greater fuel efficiency.”
Without the constant stop-and-go, people will be less likely to rear-end the person in front of them, Tucker said.
Columbia County Board of Supervisors Chairman Matt Murell feels the transition will be bittersweet.
“It keeps traffic flowing but it is another example of technology replacing humans and jobs,” he said.
Approximately 265 million motorists use the 570 mile highway each year, according to governor.ny.gov.
“Cashless tolling is helping transform our state’s transportation infrastructure and creating a state-of-the-art, reliable highway system that meets the needs of 21st century commuters,” Governor Cuomo said in a statement in December. “These new cashless barriers will ease congestion for millions of motorists each year and help strengthen the region’s economy by increasing access to local communities.”
State Thruway Authority Executive Director Matthew J. Driscoll also voiced his support in a February release.
“Under the leadership of Governor Cuomo, the Thruway Authority continues its historic and monumental transition to cashless tolling system-wide by the end of 2020,” Driscoll said in the statement. “At the completion of this project, the more than 268 million motorists that rely on the Thruway each year will never again have to stop and wait to pay at a toll booth making our interchanges and former toll barriers safer by easing congestion and greener by lowering emissions.”
The seven barriers that were already converted are projected to save drivers 200 minutes annually, according to a statement from December.
“In 2017, more than 109 million vehicles traveled through the Thruway’s seven fixed-price barriers, accounting for more than 40 percent of Thruway toll revenue,” according to the statement. “The conversion to cashless tolling is expected to save commuters approximately 200 minutes annually.”
It is uncertain if the switch will save drivers money.
The current price for tolls is fixed through 2020, Dougherty said.
New York EZ-pass customers are offered 5 percent discounts when traveling on the Thruway.
The project will be very extensive, Dougherty said.
“It’s a big undertaking,” he said. “All of the stops have to go at once.”
Three companies — Cashless Tolling Constructors, Kiewit Infrastructure Co. and Statewide Civil — are working on proposals for the project, according to the Thruway Authority.
The chosen company will have to work on switching over 52 exits that span approximately 450 miles simultaneously, Dougherty said.
“They all have to be ready when we go live,” he said.
These exits, located between exits 15 (Woodbury) and exit 61 (Ripley, at the Pennsylvania line), as well as exits B1 to B3 (Berkshire Spur), account for nearly 60 percent of all Thruway traffic each year, according to thruway.ny.gov.
In 2018, more than 158 million vehicles traveled more than 6.2 billion miles on this section.
There are no estimated costs for the projects until the companies complete the bidding process, Dougherty said.
A final contract is expected to be awarded in July, according a release from the Thruway Authority.