AMSTERDAM - The state Thruway Authority's proposed 45 percent toll increase for trucks with three axles or more has put the business community on the offensive since the proposal was first made in May.
Now, a local manufacturing company is circulating a petition to fight the proposal as opponents wait to see how the Thruway Authority's board will vote on the matter.
The toll increase was scheduled to begin today if it was approved, but a meeting of the authority board scheduled for Sept. 11 was canceled, and the board has not yet voted on the proposed increase.
Traffic enters the state Thruway at the toll booth in Amsterdam on Friday. (Photo by Amanda May Metzger/The Leader-Herald)
"The Thruway Authority Board of Directors has not yet scheduled the meeting to address the toll adjustment proposal," Thruway Authority spokesman Dan Weiller said. "Deliberations among the board and staff continue as we consider comments from the statewide hearings and all the important public input we have received."
NTI Global, a diversified manufacturing company located on Willow Street in the city, began circulating a petition on Sept. 18 opposing the proposed toll increases.
Company President Rachal Raeburn said she hasn't yet counted the signed petitions she's received, but on Friday she rifled through about a 3-inch stack of papers.
The toll for a three-axle truck traveling from Buffalo to New York City is now about $88, but that could increase to $127 if the proposal passes.
From Amsterdam to Buffalo that would increase from $59 to $85.55. That may not seem like much, but Raeburn said the company estimates an additional $40,000 to $55,000 in charges. She said the industry is already seeing a shortage of drivers, and the increase in tolls could make the profession even less lucrative as drivers often foot the toll bill themselves.
Fulton Montgomery Chamber of Commerce interim President Mark Kilmer said many businesses might be locked into transportation contracts already that don't allow them to adjust rates for increased tolls.
Both Kilmer and Raeburn said the proposed increase would impact more than just trucking companies.
"Every consumer in New York state should be aware of the fact that the prices they pay in grocery stores, furniture stores, gasoline and anything shipped via the Thruway is affected by those tolls," Kilmer said. "It's not well-thought out. It's just another regressive tax on the back of everybody. It's not just trucking companies. It's not just businesses. It's everybody. Everyone in the state should unify in opposing this regressive move."
"[Many] of your average citizens thinking about this are thinking, 'I don't drive a five-axle truck,' but how do the shoes that my children wear get here? This affects companies like Fed Ex and UPS," Raeburn said. "Unless [people] are 100 percent self sustainable, this is going to affect them."
The petition, which is addressed to the Thruway Board, states: "I agree with the N.Y.S. Comptroller and thousands of New York state businesses that it will be detrimental to the New York state economy. I urge you to review the proposal and reduce any increase made."
The petition refers to Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's report in which the comptroller said, "Imposing a large toll increase could have damaging effects on consumers and businesses at a time when many New Yorkers are struggling to recover from the recession. The Thruway should do more before relying on yet another toll hike to make ends meet."
According to DiNapoli's report the Thruway increased its operating costs by 36 percent over the past 10 years while debt payments doubled and revenues failed to increase at the same rate.
Weiller estimated about 96 percent of the Authority's revenue comes from tolls while 4 percent stems from several other sources such as contracts to run service stations.
Being under an Authority's jurisdiction, the Thruway is not funded by state tax dollars.
According to documents on the Thruway Authority's website, the increase in tolls will help pay for repairs to the highway.
A May 30 letter from Thruway Executive Director Thomas J. Madison, Jr., to the Authority Board, states that large trucks "cause nearly 10,000 times the damage to the road system as do passenger cars."
"Yet, commercial tolls are only five times greater than passenger tolls on th Thruway. The proposed adjustment begins to address this disparity," the letter states.
Tolls for cars were increased over a five-year period ending in 2010.
The letter also states that even with the increase, the rates on commercial vehicles are still less than rates on the New Jersey Turnpike and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
NTI Global is an American manufacturing company that consolidated its operations from Utah and Kentucky to bring everything to New York state about a decade ago.
"We've been in business for over 30 years. We've been though everything from moving from Schenectady to coming to Amsterdam," Raeburn said.
Raeburn said the petition has attracted varied supporters from people on the company's sewing line to other area businesses. She said she's even brought it to the attention of some Canadian operations the company deals with.
Both state Assemblyman George Amedore, R-Rotterdam and Marc Butler, R-Newport, were happy to hear about the petition circulating.
"It's a toll that would have an unfair impact on upstate New York. It's not hard to make the case. It's just another way of taxing," Butler said.
Both Butler and Amedore made clear their positions opposing the toll hike at a hearing in Albany on Sept. 5. The hearing was not one of the public hearings scheduled by the Thruway Authority as those were held only in Syracuse, Newburgh and Buffalo.
"I think it's a tax that will drive out jobs, and it will create a huge burden not just on the owners/operators of small businesses and truckers in the trucking industry, but I'm also very concerned about [the impact] on our agricultural industry," Amedore said.
Butler said some people at the hearing raised concerns about Thruway revenue supporting the Canal system.
"There has been an argument made that the canal is really not serving a real necessary function anymore. It's kind of a leftover mode of transportation from another era. If you watch the traffic on the canal, most of it is luxury yachts or expensive boats."
The authority took over the Canal Corp in 1992 after the Legislature transferred it to the Thruway to eliminate it from the state budget. Since then, DiNapoli said it has spent $1.1 billion to fund the system.
Butler said he is not opposed to transferring the canal out of the authority's hands, but said that issue requires much more study before a decision is made.
"The question of how to finance it, that's something we need to look at thoroughly," he said, noting that some development projects along the canals have been successful.
Kilmer said the Canal remains important for its rich history, tourism draw and the possibility it may be needed in the future for transportation.
"There are other proposals. They are looking at a considerable amount of property the Canal Corp. may own. Could they lease that or sell that or get revenue from that source? Could they generate hydro power from the canal and generate revenue sources that way?" Butler said. "I think that is an issue we do need to look at thoroughly. I'm not prepared to give up on the canal, but I think we really need to think about what its future use is."
According to DiNapoli's report on the Thruway, the state constitution prohibits selling the canal system. Also, it is estimated to cost $436.5 million to repair and maintain from 2013 to 2016.
"I think the main thing here is the state Thruway Authority needs to look at where the increased cost is coming from and then correlate that without the tax increase. If this is really coming from the Canal System, then the Canal System needs to bear that burden. They really need to isolate that rather than spreading it to motorists," Raeburn said, suggesting that perhaps boater registration fees, for example, should increase instead.
Amedore said he backs legislation-currently in committee - to require the Thruway Authority obtain legislative approval before increasing tolls and to remove the Canal System from the Thruway Authority.
Amedore, Butler and Kilmer also expressed concern that the increased tolls would reroute truckers onto local roads, which in turn could increase repair bills on the local levels.
"Then we as property owners will have to pay for the infrastructure improvements," Amedore said. "One thing we can do is make the public authority accountable by allowing the decision [on toll increases] to be an up or down vote in the Legislature after hearing reports from the Thruway Authority."
He also suggested leasing more space along the Thruway and charging businesses to advertise along the roadway.
"We can't just go to the commercial vehicles, the trucks who transport our food and the products we purchase in grocery stores and department stores. The cost of living is already astronomical in the state of New York," Amedore said. "This is only going to increase the cost of food so much more."