Congressman Asks Comptroller to Step in After FOIL Request Goes Unanswered
Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-27) is calling on New York Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, the State’s top watchdog, to conduct a comprehensive audit of the New York State Thruway Authority (NYSTA), with a particular focus on Authority expenses. This comes after a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request sent by the Congressman to the Authority on September 25, 2007 remains unacknowledged. According to a June audit by the Comptroller, the NYSTA has a history of non-compliance with FOIL requests.
“If this Authority, charged with serving the public, has nothing to hide then they need to open their books and allow the public to see where our tolls are going,” said Congressman Higgins. “This new proposal to increase tolls, combined with the toll increase a year and a half ago, would mean a 45% toll increase in just 5 years. If expenses are growing at this astonishing rate, we need better oversight.”
The Authority justified the 2005 toll increase on the need to support a $2.6 billion statewide capital improvement plan. According to the Capital plan released in 2004, the Authority planned to let $132.4 million in contracts in the Buffalo division in 2007. As of late September the Authority let less than $7 million so far this year.
“When the Thruway Authority raised tolls the last time they promised specific investments in Western New York infrastructure, many of which never occurred,” said Higgins. “If the toll money isn’t going into the local projects the Authority committed to, what exactly are local toll payers paying for? It appears that the Thruway Authority can’t be trusted. Western New Yorkers deserve some answers.”
In his letter to Comptroller DiNapoli, Congressman Higgins also notes hundreds of millions in evident questionable spending for the Thruway Authority including: hundreds of millions of dollars subsidizing the canal system; $4.6 million on small town waterfront development projects; $6.5 million to develop the Westchester Ferry; $19.2 million to redevelop Syracuse’s Inner Harbor; $5 million for a bus station in Syracuse; $1.8 million on advertising; and $23,000 for sports announcer Pat Summerall to star in a five-minute video.
Yesterday the NYSTA’s Finance and Audit Committee approved a 5% toll increase in 2009 and another 5% increase in 2010. This follows a recent announcement of a 10% toll increase in 2008.
The NYTA is justifying this increase on revenue shortfalls. Congressman Higgins points out that in 2006, the first full year since the 2005 toll hike, the Authority planned to generate revenues of $602 million and actually generated revenues of $594 million, leaving a shortfall of just 1.4%. “The Authority’s reasoning doesn’t add up,” Higgins said. “Why is it that they need a 20% toll increase when their projected budget is only off by a little over 1% short?”