A bill that would have allowed Syracuse commuters to use the Thruway for free has been vetoed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The legislation sponsored by state Sen. John DeFrancisco and Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli would have established short-term commuter permits for Syracuse-area drivers using the Thruway between exits 34A and 39. With a permit, a motorist would not have to pay tolls for using the highway.
There would be limits on when commuters could use the permits to access the Thruway. Free tolling would be available only during peak commute hours, such as the morning and afternoon rush hours.
DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, touted the effort to provide free tolls for Syracuse-area commuters as a way to reduce congestion on local roads and ease stress on local infrastructure. He also believed it would improve safety.
"The New York State Thruway is one of the safest roads in the state based on accidents per mile data," he said in June. "However, many commuters in urban areas choose to bypass the Thruway in favor of local roads and highways because of the cost of tolls."
But in his veto message, Cuomo aired his concerns about the bill. He said prohibiting the Thruway Authority from collecting tolls in the Syracuse area would violate the state's Public Authorities Law. He also believes it would have an adverse impact on the authority's finances.
"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," he wrote.
In a phone interview Tuesday, DeFrancisco disagreed with Cuomo's rationale for the veto.
The Syracuse Republican dismissed the Democratic governor's statement that commuter passes would hurt the Thruway Authority's finances. The cost, DeFrancisco said, would be small compared to the Thruway's bonds.
"That, to me, is not a legitimate claim," he added.
DeFrancisco suggested that the benefits would outweigh the costs. If motorists remain on the Thruway for their Syracuse-area commute, they would avoid local streets and that could reduce congestion. And it could reduce emissions from cars waiting for traffic signals.
He also believes free tolling could help alleviate traffic as the federal and state governments decide what to do with the Interstate 81 viaduct in Syracuse. The state is studying options for the future of the highway.
"It's even a greater reason to have this commuter pass as we're moving into the decision and construction phase," DeFrancisco said. "There's even more of a reason to keep these vehicles off of city streets as long as you could."
While he opposes free tolls for Syracuse-area commuters, Cuomo offered alternatives to address congestion and encourage more drivers to use the Thruway.
He reiterated his support of "open road, cashless tolling." The state is in the process of implementing cashless tolling in select areas. Most recently, plans were announced to install cashless tolling systems on the Grand Island Bridge in western New York.
Cuomo believes cashless tolling will help the state improve safety and reduce congestion on its busiest highways.
"This will address many of the commuter transportation issues facing motorists in the Syracuse area, and would avoid a corresponding loss in revenue that would significantly impair the (Thruway Authority's) ability to comply with its statutorily mandated obligations and repay its bond holders."