Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli, D-Syracuse, said he will try again to convince Albany to drop the tolls on the Thruway through Central New York, at least during construction on Interstate 81.
Magnarelli tried, and failed, in 2017 to permanently erase Syracuse-area Thruway tolls for commuters. The bill passed the Assembly and the Senate, but was vetoed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Magnarelli has help this year from Sen. John Mannion, D-Geddes, who represents the suburbs with exits.
Nick Paro, the new Republican supervisor in the town of Salina, has asked the whole Syracuse delegation to go back to Albany to ask for at least a temporary reprieve on tolls. It is part of Paro’s plan to help businesses and residents in Salina as the redesign of I-81 sends through traffic around Syracuse and the northern suburbs. The plan is for the tolls to be free for drivers who enter and exit the Thruway between exits 34A and 39.
Magnarelli has a strong voice as chair of the Assembly Transportation Committee. He said he has not yet worked out the details, including how the funding would work or how much it would cost. One difference, he said, this time the bill would have an end date that would likely be when I-81 construction is over.
“I think it’s a great idea, I always have,” Magnarelli said. “I definitely would be willing to try again, but I know that doing it in the same way is going to get the same results.”
In 2017, Cuomo vetoed the bill. He said it would violate state law.
The Thruway Authority is a separate public authority that operates solely on toll revenue with no help from the state or local governments.
The state is prohibited from limiting or altering the rights of the Thruway Authority to set tolls and fees that are deemed necessary to operate and maintain the Thruway system, Cuomo said in his veto message.
“Passage of this bill would also serve as a catalyst for other jurisdictions to seek similar toll reductions, thus resulting in further and more expansive toll revenue loss,” Cuomo wrote.
Cuomo also added that prohibiting the Thruway Authority from collecting tolls at these five exits would result in a “significant fiscal loss,” which would need to be addressed “in the context of the annual state budget negotiation.”
One approach could be for the state to grant money to the Thruway Authority to make up the lost revenue.
Mannion said the bill so far does not address cost. He hopes rallying support for the idea will lead to negotiations over funding.
“I think we can figure out the revenue that’s lost there and still maintain quality service for Central New Yorkers,” he said.
Also different this time around is a new governor.
Paro said he hopes Gov. Kathy Hochul, from Buffalo, will be more sympathetic.
There are two places along the Thruway where there are no tolls. One is a small stretch near Albany for people traveling on to Interstate 88.
The other spot is in Buffalo. The Thruway dropped tolls through Buffalo in 2006. It was the result of an effort by developer Carl Paladino.
As a Hamburg town councilwoman in 1998, Hochul called for “a brake on tolls” in an opinion piece for The Buffalo News. She asked the Thruway Authority “to stop nickel-and-diming us to death.”
Paro, a Republican who took office in January, said he has also met with Assemblywoman Pam Hunter and Sen. Rachel May, both Syracuse Democrats, about supporting the bill. Hunter said she has asked to be a co-sponsor. He also reached out to former Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll, who is now head of the Thruway Authority.
Driscoll has repeatedly said it is not an option to drop Thruway tolls.
Driscoll and Magnarelli discussed the proposal during a state budget hearing in February.
Magnarelli said many people have come to him over the years to ask for a toll pass during I-81 construction.
“Let’s think of a way to allow for that pass,” Magnarelli said. “There must be something we can do.”
Driscoll repeated that the Thruway’s only income is toll revenue and that it has been promised to bond holders.
“My opinion is that’s not something we should do because again, we have one line of revenue and it’s our tolls,” Driscoll said.
It is not yet clear how much revenue the Thruway would lose if it dropped tolls in the Syracuse area. The Thruway Authority keeps statistics on the number of people who get on and off at each exit, but they do not know how many of those drivers are commuters.
The overpasses that carry traffic on I-81 through downtown Syracuse have reached the end of their useful life. The state is about to embark on a plan to remove the overpasses and send traffic through the city at street level on a newly designed community grid. High-speed traffic would circle the city on Interstate 481.
Paro is leading an effort to make it easier for people who live and work in the Northern suburbs to navigate the new highway system. He may also have a willing listener for his proposal for the state to build a new traffic circle for drivers who leave the city and head up the shore of Onondaga Lake toward Liverpool.
Magnarelli said the general idea “doesn’t scare me.”
A roundabout at the bottom of the lake would connect Onondaga Parkway, Old Liverpool Road, Buckley Road and Park Street. He said the circle would provide a more “aesthetically pleasing” welcome to the town of Salina as drivers leave the city.
Magnarelli said he would need to see more details, but he would talk to transportation officials about the concept.
“The idea of a roundabout, to me, makes sense,” he said. “I do believe it slows traffic while keeping traffic moving.”