Even With a Toll Hike, Truck Companies Are Getting a Steal on the Thruway

When measured by their impact on road wear-and-tear, trucking companies are not paying their fair share on the New York State Thruway.

The New York State Thruway Authority’s proposal to increase truck tolls by 45 percent is getting a lot of pushback from lobbyists and politicians in Albany, including Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. But not only do the Thruway’s truck tolls fall in the middle of the road when compared to tolls in other states, trucking companies in New York are paying a disproportionately low cost for the damage their vehicles cause to roadways.

The level of Thruway tolls matters to all New Yorkers because transit funding has a history of being diverted to plug holes elsewhere in the state budget. If the owners and operators of the heaviest, most damaging vehicles on the Thruway don’t pay their share for system maintenance, straphangers could be left indirectly footing the bill.

Today, the operator of a typical 18-wheeler pays $6.78 for every dollar a car driver pays on the Thruway in Orange, Rockland and Westchester counties. Across the entire Thruway system, trucks get an even better deal, paying “only five times the rate of the average passenger vehicle,” according to Thruway Executive Director Thomas Madison Jr.

Under the toll increase, which would not apply to cars, trucks would pay $9.89 for every dollar in auto tolls. That might seem steep to most drivers, but consider the costs that go unpaid.

Although adding more axles to large trucks blunts their impact on the road, the average 18-wheeler weighs twenty times more than a two-ton automobile.

This is important because the damage inflicted on the road surface doesn’t increase linearly along with vehicle weight. In fact, wear-and-tear increases exponentially as vehicle weight increases. According to a report by Jacobs Civil Consultants for the Thruway Authority [PDF], an 80,000-pound, 18-wheel truck creates the same amount of damage as 9,600 passenger vehicles.

No one in New York is even thinking about an exponential increase in truck tolls, but the outsized impact of heavy trucks on road maintenance shouldn’t be forgotten as the toll hike, which only needs the consent of the Thruway Authority board to proceed, draws closer. If approved at this month’s board meeting, it could go into effect as soon as September 30.

One argument against the toll increase is that it would place New York at a competitive disadvantage. But the Thruway’s truck tolls — even after the increase — are comparable to rates in adjacent states.

Presently, the Thruway’s peak toll rate per mile of highway for five-axle trucks is lower than rates for the New Jersey and Pennsylvania turnpikes. After the toll increase, it will be slightly higher than New Jersey and Pennsylvania, with per-mile toll rates on par with I-95 in New Hampshire.

In some ways, this debate completely misses the big picture: The chief competition for freight across and within New York isn’t other state turnpikes, but railroads, and making the playing field more favorable for freight rail will have major environmental and quality-of-life benefits.

The Thruway Authority must raise revenue to avoid a credit downgrade. Madison and Governor Cuomo have called on the highway’s heaviest users to pay, if not their fair share, at least something closer to it. They deserve credit for holding firm so far. They will need the same type of commitment — and then some — to ensure that users of the new Tappan Zee Bridge, not NYC straphangers, pay for that project.

  • Joe R.

    It’s been talked about forever, but you need a trans-Hudson freight tunnel in conjunction with much higher tolls for trucks. Interstate freight truck traffic largely shouldn’t even exist at all. Trucks should only be used to move freight the last few miles from rail yard to final destination. Now that freight railroads have excess capacity as power plants are switching from coal to natural gas, it’s time to switch most long-distance freight to rail.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “According to a report by Jacobs Civil Consultants for the Thruway Authority, an 80,000-pound, 18-wheel truck creates the same amount of damage as 9,600 passenger vehicles.”

    But not the same congestion as 9,600 passenger vehicles.  It isn’t just the maintenance of the road, it is the value of the land it sits on.

    “You need a trans-Hudson freight tunnel in conjunction with much higher tolls for trucks.”

    You need more than that.  The average intermodal train moves at 30 miles per hour, and sits at the terminal for 24 hours.  And the rail freight network has atrophied to the point where it is at capacity.

    You’d need a new, two-track rail freight line, perhaps adjacent to the Thruway, capable of handling one freight train moving 60-70 mph every five minutes, to feed the tunnel. With a terminal (or terminals) capable of getting the trucks or containers off, and others on, in an hour.  And perhaps another such route up from New Jersey.

    I wrote a series of posts suggesting how this might be done.  But because our state government is what it is, and its past decisions were what they were, and the power of interest groups inflating the cost of construction is what it is, this is not possible.

  • Anonymous

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus , for time-sensitive cargo, truck is still much faster. And we live in the “just in time” era where low stocks is key.

  • Anonymous

    Now imagine the damage to upstate roads caused by trucks supporting natural gas fracking.  No tolls on those local roads.

  • Nathanael

    Tolling the trucks more is very wise, given the damage trucks do.  Maybe it will divert some of the truck traffic to the parallel *railway lines*.  The railways can handle it, or at least they could if some of the abandoned ones were rebuilt and some of the four-track lines were restored to their full four tracks (grrrr).

  • Nathanael

    “You’d need a new, two-track rail freight line, perhaps adjacent to the
    Thruway, capable of handling one freight train moving 60-70 mph every
    five minutes,”

    From the state border to Albany, that would be the double-tracked New York Central Line (now owned by CSX) which already exists, and carries trains at that speed, and can be modified to carry them that frequently.

    And there’s room for two more tracks to put passenger traffic on.

    South of Albany you need to do a bit more work, but there’s the West Side (of the Hudson) line; not that hard.

    Yes, intermodal terminals need some improvement.  Most trucks are not time-sensitive enough to need to avoid the 24 hour delay at each end, though — and the ones which are will happily pay very high tolls.

  • Nathanael

    As for the trans-Hudson freight tunnel and Long Island intermodal terminal, it’s been proposed before and was a high priority project, but it just can’t seem to get the funding.

  • Anonymous

    I have an engineering question: what fraction of road maintenance costs is due to wear and tear caused by vehicles, vs “spontaneous wear and tear” caused by the weather, geological processes, material decay, etc.? I’m sure even a road with zero traffic would start crumbling at some point without maintenance, even if much slower than a real road.

  • Be careful what you wish for.

    After Turnpike tolls were raised here in New Jersey, truckers started
    look for other legal (and illegal) alternatives.  In my area of Central New Jersey truckers are
    using other non toll road freeways, federal and state highways and then
    connecting them via a 2 mile stretch of county roadway that happens to
    be a critical route for cyclists (perfectly legal).  Truckers have always used this
    alternate route to avoid the Turnpike but since the tolls went up the
    amount of truck traffic on this road has skyrocketed and not dropped. 
    Meanwhile, the Turnpike, which is a much more appropriate and SAFE place to put
    heavy trucking runs way under capacity on weekdays.

    Yes, wear and tear on a roadway is proportional to the weight of a vehicle by the FOURTH power but did you ever consider the REAL effect of what raising the tolls would do?  They are not going to put their loads onto trains, at least not in any short-term scenario I could envision.  While I do favor truckers paying a higher fee to use our roadways, I think as a society we will always need to subsidize the damage to our roadways caused by trucking as we all do benefit from the goods and services provided.

  • Ernie

    I would like to see what you fools would due if you take away the trucks , they bring everything you touch. and by the way, they pay a fed. hwy use tax and a fuel tax for every mile they run in every state, Perhaps they need to tax autos at 45% more, they would make more money.

  • Trentkoenigs

    Raise it up all you want charge a thousand dollars to cross the bridge the transportation co. will pass cost off to the consumer of the goods brought in.

  • Trentkoenigs

    I am happy someone on this page understands economics. Great post!!

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