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Thruway tollbooths on their way out

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    Exit 21 in Catskill. Toll plazas along the New York State Thruway will be removed after the state shifts to cashless tolling in 2020.
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    The New York State Thruway will eliminate cash tolls by the end of 2020 across the entire 450 miles of highway.
June 19, 2019 10:05 pm

ALBANY — Tollbooths along the New York State Thruway will soon be no more.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this week that the state has contracted with a “Design-Build team” to install cashless tolling and remove existing tollbooths on the Thruway by the end of 2020. The project comes with a price tag of $355.3 million, according to the governor’s office.

“New York state is making historic investments building a modern transportation network worthy of the 21st century and beyond,” Cuomo said. “By investing in technology like cashless tolling, we are creating a safer, greener and less congested Thruway system and ensuring our transportation infrastructure is capable of supporting New York’s growing economy.”

There are two Thruway exits in the Twin Counties, both in Greene County — Exit 21 in Catskill and Exit 21B in Coxsackie. A total of 52 Thruway interchanges will be eliminated along all 450 miles of road between Exit 15 in Woodbury and Exit 61 at the Pennsylvania state line. Exits B1-B3, along the Berkshire Spur, are included in the plan. The tollbooths in Catskill and Coxsackie will eventually be removed, but local officials said they have not been told when that will happen.

“I know the state just signed a contract for the provision, but I have not been told when it would move into our area, nor do I know if we will be notified because the Thruway Authority is a public authority so they don’t answer to local municipalities,” said Greene County Legislature Chairman Pat Linger, R-New Baltimore.

About 267 million motorists use the Thruway each year, according to the governor’s office.

The switch to cashless tolling and the removal of tollbooths will be carried out by the contractor Cashless Tolling Constructors, LLC.

Cuomo first announced the plan to move to cashless tolling in his 2018 State of the State address. There is already cashless tolling at several fixed-price barriers in the lower Hudson Valley and at the Grand Island Bridges in Western New York.

The first step will be for the Thruway Authority to install gantries and cashless tolling equipment. Once operational, drivers will pass under the gantries, without stopping, and sensors and cameras will read E-ZPass tags and take photos of license plates. Bills will be sent to registered owners of vehicles that don’t have E-ZPass. Drivers who pay using the Tolls by Mail system will pay the same toll rate they paid when they were cash customers; E-ZPass customers with New York accounts will continue to receive a 5% discount, according to the governor’s office.

Once the cashless tolling system is in place, existing toll plazas will be removed in phases.

At the present time, the Thruway employs 200 full-time and about 1,000 part-time toll collectors, according to a spokesman for the New York State Thruway Authority. Some have already chosen to retire; others will have opportunities to apply for other jobs with the Thruway or undergo training for new fields, the spokesman said.

Local officials expressed concerns about those lost positions.

“We have some residents who work at the tolls,” Coxsackie Town Supervisor Rick Hanse said. “I have been told anecdotally that they are being cross-trained for other jobs, but I was concerned. You always worry about people losing jobs, especially to technology.”

F. Michael Tucker, president and CEO of the Columbia Economic Development Corporation, said the cashless system will be a good thing, once Thruway employees find new work.

“The new system will be an economic improvement once the toll collectors are re-employed,” Tucker said. “The transition from the existing system to the new system will provide significant benefits, but we need to focus on re-employing toll collectors as part of this process.”

Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden questioned how much money the new system will actually save.

“This is fairly common across the nation in mass transit, but I question if it will really save money,” Groden said. “If you don’t have E-ZPass, the camera network takes a picture of your license plate and it sends you a bill, and then you have to send a check back. I question what the savings would actually be. The bigger concern is that this is another low-tech industry that is losing employment. What are we doing for those people who will lose their job? This is an issue across the economy as low-tech jobs are replaced by machines.”

New Baltimore Town Supervisor Jeff Ruso said the town has been preparing for the change.

“Earlier this year our town clerk applied for and received an account to sell E-ZPass at town hall and we announced it to our town residents so we can help more people in the town get E-ZPass. We did this in preparation for cashless tolls,” Ruso said. “I do worry about those people who won’t have employment any longer, some of whom I know personally. They are not certain where they will land. One’s actually retired because he was of age to retire and this was the trigger to actually do it.”

For more information on how the new system will work, visit thruway.ny.gov.