Dan Hall: Thruway toll fight is just a distraction
Like everybody else, I am outraged that the state Thruway Authority is going ahead, for now at least, with its plan to raise Thruway tolls despite opposition from just about the entire state. Even Eliot Spitzer, Joe Bruno, and Sheldon Silver, who rarely agree on anything, have united on this one.
Really, though, the toll controversy is a sideshow. The larger question is this:
Why does New York need its vast web of extra-governmental organizations like the Thruway Authority, which operate largely out of public view, are mainly accountable only to themselves, yet collect and spend billions of dollars of public money every year?
The State Comptroller’s Office lists 292 such entities, if you include their subsidiaries. Those 292 organizations, such as the state Urban Development Corporation, the Dormitory Authority, the University Construction Fund, the Power Authority and the Energy Research Authority, have major statewide or regional responsibilities. Another 560 smaller authorities, such as the Monroe County and the Ontario County industrial development agencies, either have local responsibilities or work with various departments of state government.
That makes 852 bureaucracies, large and small, operating pretty much as their own little empires, outside the control of normal government processes.
Some, no doubt, exist for good reason and do an efficient job of managing important tasks. Too often, however, they do not.
A year ago, for example, the Comptroller’s Office reported that the Ontario County Industrial Development Agency had met its job-creation goals only about 30 percent of the time. More recently, the Ontario IDA, which is governed by an unelected board of directors, threatened to use eminent domain to force the elected Canandaigua Town Board to give up a portion of a town road.
The Monroe County IDA has a similarly miserable record on job creation, and has been suspected of playing political favoritism with grants and loans. For many years, the chairman of the Monroe IDA also was in charge of fundraising for the county Republican committee.
The governor and state legislators from New York City to Buffalo are for now having a fine time stepping in front of TV cameras to voice fury at the high-handed tactics of the Thruway Authority, but you have to wonder how much of that is real and how much is for show.
Most of our state’s leaders have long loved these big authorities, which have provided a convenient way to borrow money without having to observe any of the niceties required by the state constitution, such as public referendums on major bond issues.
One of the most famous events along those lines came during the Cuomo administration, when the governor and the legislative leadership got the state Urban Development Corporation to “buy” Attica Prison.
Most of the state’s enormous debt, the largest in the nation, actually results from borrowing done by our various state authorities, usually outside of public view.
State leaders have especially loved the Thruway Authority, which for decades has served as a wonderful conduit for old-fashioned political patronage and, more important, is a huge cash cow. It provides lucrative contracting opportunities, employs thousands of people, and costs nothing in the state budget. Much of the money it rakes in comes from out-of-state drivers.
Those are the reasons, in fact, that in the early 1990s legislators started looking for ways to break their decades of promises to end the tolls when the Authority finally made its last payment on the construction bonds.
Their solution? They put the Erie Canal under control of the Thruway Authority. The Authority would continue collecting tolls, with part of the money going to improve the canal and turn it into a source of tourism and economic development. The tolls would also pay for Thruway maintenance (thus keeping those costs out of the state budget.) The popularity of the canal helped moderate public anger over the fact that the tolls would continue.
The canal plan, however, has not worked out well. The Authority has made some major improvements to locks, dams, and Towpath trails, but it has done little to promote use of the thousands of acres of land it owns alongside the canal for development of tourism-related businesses, housing, or other uses.
The Authority is right to try to hand its canal responsibilities, now estimated to cost $80 million annually, to some other agency better suited to do the job. If that happens, its plan to raise the tolls, which by some strange coincidence also amounts to $80 million annually, will probably disappear too.
But the state will still be saddled with 852 extra-governmental fiefdoms operating largely outside public control. And most of our state’s leading politicians will still think that’s just fine.
Dan Hall is the former editorial page editor of Messenger Post Newspapers. E-mail email@example.com