Happy Birthday, Thruway

thruway vintage logoThe New York State Thruway was born on this day in 1954 when its first section -- a 115 mile stretch between Lowell and Rochester -- opened.

In honor of the Thruway's 55th birthday, here are a few facts about New York's ribbon of asphalt...

+ The Thruway includes 641 miles of roadway. That makes it the longest toll road in the United States. At one point, it was the longest toll road in the world.

+ The Thruway Authority estimates it cost about $1 billion to build the system.

+ It was named the "The Governor Thomas E. Dewey Thruway" in 1964. The system was conceived during Dewey's three terms as governor. (Dewey also signed the legislation that created SUNY.)

+ About 271 million vehicles travel more than 8 billion miles on the Thruway each year, according to the Thruway Authority.

+ The Thruway collected about $567 million in tolls last year.

+ E-ZPass was introduced in 1993. High-speed E-ZPass debuted at the beginning of 2007.

+ There are 27 travel plazas.

(Thanks, Annmarie!)


Complaints from cranks about how the tolls were supposed to come off, in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .

So if it cost $1B to build and it makes just over $0.5B/year, why don't we get a new one over other year?

$565 mil of that $567 mil in tolls goes toward the cost of traffic cones. The remaining $2 mil gets split between mowing, paving, and hands-free faucets that don't work.

I was once told that back when it opened there was an intention (however brief) that when the Thruway paid for itself the tolls would be reduced, or some of the toll booths closed.



I'm sure the $1 billion number is in 1950s-1960s dollars, whereas the toll collection revenue is in present-day dollars.

Yeah, really, now that we've been importing that advanced self-maintaining asphalt and concrete from aliens in the Pleiades for a few decades, all of those tolls are pure profit. No more repaving after the winter ice heave, no grading to ensure proper water runoff, no worrying about the structural integrity of overpasses... someone should investigate this and get the facts, that money is going somewhere.

Some other interesting Thruway facts:
- It was built not to support expanded car use or trucking but for quick and easy evacuation of major cities in the case of an attack. It and every other highway in the U.S. was built based on Germany's highway system seen during WWII. Thanks Eisenhower!
- Every U.S. highway is built wide enough for a 1960's size military plane to land on. Don't believe it? Look up that plane that landed on the Northway a few years ago.
- The left lane is one foot wider than the right lane and those "small" lane dividers are actually 1 foot wide by 12 feet long.
- There is a small cemetery before Herkimer on the right side of the Westbound lane. Not only is this the creepiest cemetery on earth but it also holds the future grave site of Jerry Jennings' political career*.

*May or may not be true.

So when is the NYS Thruway going to adopt the exit-numbering system that other states have employed, in which the exit numbers correspond to the mile markers? I've seen this in Pennsylvania with the Pennsylvania Turnpike and I-81. If that were to occur in New York, you could pick up Exit 141 to get to I-787, or get onto the Northway off of Thruway Exit 148.

Sorry Save Pine Hills, but Snopes disagrees with you. In fact, so does the Federal Highway Administration. Maybe you were using a looser definition of the word fact.

@James, @Pat, sorry I forgot the tag in my earlier post. :)

All in all, the Thruway is a pretty good bargain for New Yorkers. Yes, once the original bonds were cleared, the tolls were supposed to go away. Thinking about it in terms of $/mile (just less than $1M/mile per year) to keep it in shape, plowed, signed, patrolled, sounds like a lot. But when you look at it in terms of $/mile *driven*, or $0.07 (yes, seven cents) for the upkeep, it makes a lot more cents, er sense. :)

And before the geeks go after the numbers (like I just spent 5 minutes crunching) yes, tolls on a car are less than 7 cents per mile. Trucks are much higher. And they heft proportionally more
impact on the road.

There was a great Discovery special on the US highways. Yes, built on design philosophies of the the Autobahn. But with somewhat relaxed specifications. Tighter radius turns and steeper hills allowed on the US highway system.

Oh, and don't ever even *think* about putting a plane down on the Thruway unless you really don't have another option. The fine is hefty (and that's hefty on the scale for people who own airplanes....) The use for military aircraft is, unfortunately, urban legend.

chuck, I have been wondering that same thing for years now. people have told me it would be too confusing with the thruway, but the way I see it it's pretty confusing to have two exit 23's on I-87 and so forth. I hope NY gets with the program though, I much prefer the milepost exit numbers when I'm traveling.


You probably won't see that happen on the Thruway anytime soon. Although mile-based numbering is recommended for new roads, the Thruway is a (very) limited access road with AFAIK no plans to add exits. There would be no reason to change the exit numbering except to spend money doing so.

But I'm not a traffic engineer, so I'd be happy to be proven wrong.

@B, @Save Pine Hills:

Highways weren't constructed with the express goal to be emergency landing strips for F-4s. However, general aviation pilots are trained to use roads (1) for navigation if they get lost, and (2) as emergency landing strips if no more appropriate site is available. The urban legend likely came from this.

I find the tolls in this country/state refreshingly cheap. According to the
Toll and Distance Calculator it seems it costs a 2 axles about 7 cents per mile to go to NYC from Alb, and about 4 cents to go to Syracuse. The NYSTA is an independent public corporation. In my socialist homeland, highways/autoroutes are owned by the French state but operated by semi-private companies. From Paris to Lyon (the second largest city), 285 miles will cost you $42 (about 15 cents per mile). From Paris to Lille (third largest, North), about the same price. And yes, we are supposed to have fast trains that smell like cheese, but gee, they will often cost you your first born child. As far as planes are concerned, forget it. So yeah, to put things in perspective, it's not too bad here, really.

@SavePineHills: The interstate system wasn't based on the Autobahn at all, other than the fact that it connects cities with a controlled-access highway. If anything, it reflects the lessons learned from operating the various parkways in downstate NY & buffalo and the first freeways in Los Angeles.

The autobahn has a number of design elements the distinguish it from the US system. The German roads include constant shallow curves to keep people awake, while US roads tend to go straight and put you to sleep. It is also tightly regulated -- driving slow in the left lane is a serious violation.

Also, anyone who actually believed that tolls would go away is kidding themselves. The ability of the state to govern authorities is limited by bonds, so authorities tend to refinance their bonds often to stick around.

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