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In Depth: Cashless tolls, at what cost?

May 22, 2017 06:47 PM

Drive across the Tappan Zee Bridge and you no longer have to stop or even slow down to pay a toll.    

A hi-tech cashless system is in place and NewsChannel 13 has learned that the Thruway Authority is talking about the possibility of putting them in system-wide. Cashless tolling can make life a lot easier for drivers, but our NewsChannel 13 investigation also found it may cost you when it comes to safety.

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According to the Thruway Authority, cashless tolling is the wave of the future. The system is already fully operational at the Tappan Zee Bridge. Another system is operating as you pass by Woodbury Commons, although a few toll plazas remain. Work begins this fall on a cashless tolling set-up when you get off Exit 16. The big concern for some is the cost to convert all tolls.

"The estimates we've seen is that it would cost anywhere between $500 million and $600 million dollars to do it system-wide," noted Mike Elmendorf.

He is president and CEO of the Associated General Contractors. They do most of the state's road and bridge work.

The state would probably save money if the toll workers were no longer needed, but right now the tolls you pay make up 95 percent of the Thruway’s capital funding. Elmendorf fears if any of that money is spent on cashless tolls, road and bridge work won't get done.

"That's a big concern with any state. I mean, because it's going to come out of the taxpayers’ dollars eventually," surmised Maribel Figueroa Burgos of New Jersey.

"If you don't have money to fix the roads, you're going to lose them. You know, right now they're passable, they're decent, they're not superb," admitted Charlie Bell of Long Island.

The Thruway Authority tells NewsChannel 13 they have increased fines on toll violators to raise more money and so far this year, they say, it's brought in an extra $3 million.

Most of the motorists we spoke with agreed, the roads on the Thruway are in pretty good shape right now -- at least on the stretch we drove recently between Albany and the Tappan Zee Bridge.

When it comes to the bridges, that's a different story. After Mark Mulholland's recent investigation on the Highway and Bridge Trust Fund, a viewer sent NewsChannel 13 a picture of a crumbling bridge on Route 9W in New Baltimore, so we went to check it out.    

The damage was obvious as we drove under, so we got off the Thruway to take a closer look. It was easy to see exposed rebar in several spots and a lot of crumbling concrete.

In fact, we saw several bridges with crumbling concrete on our drive that day and we found a few with extra supports under the bridge. The motorists we spoke with agree, that's a big concern.

"The bridges in New Jersey are already not being maintained. There’s been a lot of accidents and then they have to do these emergency constructions," pointed out Figueroa.

According to Elmendorf’s group, emergency repair work can cost up to 20 percent more than regular maintenance.

"It's a much less exciting prospect to have high-speed electronic tolling if you've got a system that's falling apart," admitted Elmendorf.

He also raises the point that the Thruway is an aging system, built more than 60 years ago. He estimates the Thruway Authority should be reconstructing about 100 lane miles and 30 bridges a year just to maintain the system, but he says that's not happening.      

"There are stretches of the road already that were slated to be full-depth reconstruction that they pulled back and did basically a mill and fill which makes it look and feel pretty good for a while," noted Elmendorf.

NewsChannel 13 has reached out to the Thruway Authority to ask about their cashless tolling plans statewide. They will only say it’s under discussion.

They are talking about the new cashless system at Exit 16 and say that is expected to be operational in the fall of next year.

If someone doesn't have E-ZPass, they can expect a bill in the mail.

Credits

WNYT Staff

Copyright 2017 - WNYT-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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