Earlier this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo decreed that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will replace its toll booths with high-speed electronic tolling by the end of next year. The MTA said the fast-tracked project will cost $500 million, paid for by “efficiencies” in its budget. On Wednesday some of the MTA’s own board members questioned the rush into expensive contracts for the new toll system and sounded the alarm over the risk it could pose to the city’s transit riders.
Left unsaid during yesterday’s meetings: the question of what a $500 million infusion of gubernatorial initiative could do for the city’s bus and subway commuters.
Bridges and Tunnels committee chair Charles Moerdler, determined to push forward with the cashless tolls project, professed his love for the state’s big man. “There’s a distinction between this governor and other public officials. He acts. And that’s why I admire him,” he said. “The governor is entirely correct that we’ve been sitting on the dime in this city and state too damn long.”
But the governor’s mandate comes at a cost.
The MTA is skipping the competitive bid process and is instead modifying existing contracts in an effort to move quickly. The biggest change: A contract with Transcore, which implemented the open-road tolling pilot on the Henry Hudson Bridge, will be expanded by $72.8 million, an 836 percent increase over its current size.
Transcore estimated its work at $72.8 million, but the MTA actually thinks it should cost $64.4 million. Instead of negotiating a price before a contract is signed, like it has with other contractors, the authority says it will continue to negotiate with Transcore after the money is approved.
In its contract for Sandy recovery work on the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, which the MTA seeks to amend for open-road tolling, the authority is including “allowance” of $500,000 for “expedited design and implementation.” Another Sandy contract, on the Queens Midtown Tunnel, is also being amended to accommodate cashless tolls. Additional contracts for the MTA’s remaining bridges will come later, with a total project cost of $500 million.
Both tunnel contracts will also include a combined $11.3 million for a new blue-and-yellow tiling pattern, the color scheme favored by Cuomo.
Board members said they are glad to see open-road tolling, but wanted to know more about how the MTA will be paying for what the governor presented as a fait accompli. “I understand that you want to get moving, but this is a mighty big vote for which we have basically no details. Half a billion is a mighty big sum, even in New York City,” said Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.
The MTA says it is using “efficiencies” in its $2.9 billion bridge-and-tunnel capital budget to pick up the tab. Bridges and Tunnels president Donald Spero said there would be more details about that when the capital plan is amended later this year.
The move to cashless tolls creates a risk of increased toll evasion. The MTA is moving to increase the fine for unpaid tolls on most of its crossings from $50 to $100 per violation, and began sending license plate information to the Department of Motor Vehicles this year, so repeat violators would have their registration suspended.
But if the MTA ends up collecting less toll revenue under the new system, it could mean less money for New York City’s trains and buses, which rely on up to $1 billion annually from toll revenue. “There may be some revenue loss. We realize that,” Spero said. “I can’t sit here and tell you what it’s going to look like two years from now, a year from now.”
The final votes on the open-road tolling contracts are set for Friday’s board meeting.