The New York State Thruway is a system of controlled-access highways that has a total length of just under 570 miles within the state. Although its official name is the Governor Thomas E. Dewey Thruway, many residents of the state call it simply “the Thruway.” It is one of the largest toll highway systems in the nation. The International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association rates the New York State Thruway as the fifth-busiest toll road in the U.S.
The system is operated by the New York State Thruway Authority (NYSTA), a public-benefit corporation. The Thruway system consists of six individual components across the state that connect it to four neighboring states (Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) as well as Canada’s Ontario province. The longest of the six components is the 496-mile primary line; it is a toll road that runs from the New York City line at Yonkers to the Pennsylvania state line at Ripley.
Of the system’s 570 miles, 560.85 miles, or 98.4% of the total, carries at least one interstate highway designation. The New York State Thruway system consists of six highways: the New York-Ripley mainline; the Berkshire Connector; the Garden State Parkway Connector; the New England Thruway (I-95); the Niagara Thruway (I-190); and the Cross-Westchester Expressway (I-287). The Thruway’s primary line is signed I-87 and I-90 through Albany, Syracuse and Buffalo. Only three sections of the system are not part of the Interstate Highway System – the Garden State Parkway Connector in Rockland County, a 6-mile section of the Berkshire Connector, and a short section of the mainline within exit 24 in Albany.
The New York State Police are charged with patrolling the Thruway. The speed limit on most of the Thruway is 65 miles per hour. The key exceptions are in: the densely populated northern suburbs of New York City; the suburbs and city of Buffalo; and in Westchester and Rockland counties. In those locations the speed limit is 55 miles per hour.
Interstate 90 comprises the bulk of the mainline as well as the Berkshire Connector. I-90 runs for a total of 365.55 miles along the Thruway: 347.85 miles on the mainline and 17.7 miles as part of the Berkshire Connector. The remaining 148.15 miles of the mainline are designated I-87 (including an 18.86-mile concurrency with I-287 north of New York City). I-287 covers another 29.76 miles (including the 18.86 miles shared with I-87); I-190 spans 21.24 miles and I-95 covers 15.01 miles.
The first section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in 1940 and was billed as America’s first “superhighway.” (A three-part FreightWaves Classics article about the Pennsylvania Turnpike can be found here, here and here.) The Maine Turnpike was the second modern turnpike. Its governing body, the Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA) was created in 1941 by the Maine legislature.
A toll highway to connect New York’s major cities was first proposed in the early 1940s (likely after the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened). However, primarily because of World War II, action on the Thruway was postponed. Governor Dewey was on hand to dig the first shovelful of dirt at a groundbreaking ceremony in 1946. The Thruway was named for him in 1964.
In 1950 the New York State legislature passed the Thruway Authority Act, which created the NYSTA to build and manage the Thruway. Financing for the Thruway was planned to come from toll revenue bonds as well as tolls, rents, concessions and other income.
The first section of the Thruway, which linked Utica and Rochester, opened on June 24, 1954. Other sections of the 426-mile mainline between Buffalo and the Bronx were completed and opened during 1954 and 1955. The segment from Yonkers south to the Bronx was the last one completed (August 31, 1956). At that time, the Thruway was the world’s longest toll road. It was lengthened in 1957 by the 70-mile extension west from Buffalo along Lake Erie to the Pennsylvania state line.
The Interstate Highway System was created and funded by Congress in 1956. In 1957, much of the Thruway system was designated as sections of I-87, I-90 and I-95. Other Thruway segments became part of I-190 and I-287.
From 1957 to 1960, several Thruway spurs were constructed to connect it to turnpikes in surrounding states. These include the New England Thruway (opened on October 31, 1958); the Berkshire Connector (May 26, 1959), which connects to the Massachusetts Turnpike; the Niagara Thruway (July 30, 1959), which connects to Canada’s Queen Elizabeth Way via a border crossing near Niagara Falls; and the Cross-Westchester Expressway (December 1, 1960), which connects to the Connecticut Turnpike. Also, the Thruway connects directly to the Garden State Parkway, which connects to the New Jersey Turnpike. Therefore, there is a toll road system that links New York City and Chicago via other tolled highways in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.
Like most other toll roads, the Thruway formerly used a combination of closed (ticket-based) and open (barrier-based) tolling. Between 2016 to 2018, all of the Thruway system’s flat-rate barriers were changed to open road tolling. This replaced cash payments with all-electronic tolling. Drivers can pay tolls using either E-ZPass or Tolls-By-Mail. Of the Thruway’s six highways, the Garden State Parkway Connector, the Cross-Westchester Expressway and the section of the mainline in and around Buffalo are toll-free.
As noted above, the Thruway’s mainline begins at the boundary between New York City’s Bronx borough and the Westchester County city of Yonkers. There, I-87’s name changes from the Major Deegan Expressway to the Thruway as the mainline proceeds northward through Yonkers and southern Westchester County.
At an interchange on the Cross-Westchester Expressway I-287 joins the Thruway, following I-87 west across the Hudson River into Rockland County on the Tappan Zee Bridge. The overlap of I-87 and I-287 continues for 15 miles through the densely populated southern portion of Rockland County. The Thruway continues in a generally westward direction to Suffern; I-87 and I-287 split near the New Jersey border. The Thruway turns northward into the Ramapo River Valley.
The Thruway continues north toward Harriman, where it becomes a completely tolled highway. It parallels the Hudson River to the river’s west and serves Newburgh, New Paltz and Kingston.
Past Kingston, the highway runs closer to the river and parallels US 9W. Just north of the town of Ravena, the Thruway intersects the western end of the Berkshire Connector, which connects the Thruway mainline to the Massachusetts Turnpike. The Thruway continues into Albany; via I-787 it connects to Troy and intersects I-90. The Thruway/I-90 intersection is the Thruway’s busiest exit, used by more than 27 million vehicles annually. The Thruway transitions from I-87 to I-90 as the Thruway runs in a northwesterly direction toward Schenectady.
The Thruway bypasses Schenectady to the south and west (I-890 takes motorists into the city). I-90 intersects with I-88 in Rotterdam; travel between I-88 and exits 24, 25 and 26 in either direction is toll-free.
The Thruway parallels the Erie Canal and the Mohawk River toward Utica. As in Schenectady, the Thruway bypasses downtown Utica (serviced directly by I-790). The Thruway turns slightly southwestward and crosses the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal. On the other side of the river, the Thruway curves back to the west.
As the Thruway approaches Syracuse, rural areas give way to suburbia; then development increases significantly west of I-481. The Thruway intersects I-81 in the Syracuse suburb of Salina. West of Salina, the Thruway intersects I-690; development along the Thruway declines sharply as it heads generally westward.
Continuing westward, the Thruway meets I-490, which serves Rochester while the Thruway bypasses it. The Thruway continues westward into Erie County and toward Buffalo. The Thruway becomes toll-free in this area. There is an exit to I-290, while the Thruway runs through Buffalo’s eastern suburbs and then turns southward. As it heads south the Thruway/I-90 meet I-190, which heads to downtown Buffalo and Niagara Falls.
The Thruway becomes a toll road again near Lackawanna as it runs southwestward (roughly paralleling the shoreline of Lake Erie). The Thruway runs from here to the Pennsylvania state line. The Thruway ends at the Pennsylvania state line. However, I-90 continues into Pennsylvania as a toll-free highway.
Along the New York City-Ripley mainline there are 27 service areas. Termed “travel plazas” by the NYSTA, they are spaced roughly 30 miles apart and are open 24/7/365. Each travel plaza has a gas station and a variety of restaurants (at least one of which is open 24 hours)
The Thruway Authority Highway Advisory Radio (HAR) system is a NYSTA network of radio stations across the state that broadcast information on Thruway traffic conditions. HAR also broadcasts Amber/Silver Alerts when they are issued.
Exceptions to the Thruway’s tolls have been listed above; the other segments of the Thruway system are tolled. The system converted to an all-electronic, open road tolling system on November 14, 2020. Tolls are collected by E-ZPass or Tolls by Mail.
In a move instituted earlier this year, drivers with E-ZPasses issued by other states pay 15% more than drivers with E-ZPasses issued by New York. In addition, Tolls by Mail rates are 30% higher than the New York E-ZPass rates. In addition, Tolls by Mail users pay an extra fee with their invoice.
Cost to use the Thruway
When it opened in the mid-1950s, the cost to drive two-axle passenger vehicles from Buffalo to New York City via the Thruway was $5.60 (about $44.00 today). As of August 2021, the same trip costs $31.04 with toll-by-plate or $23.87 for New York E-ZPass holders.
All Thruway tolls were to end after its construction bonds were paid off. The last bonds were paid in 1996; however, the tolls are still being collected. This is due, in part, to the transfer of ownership of the New York State Canal System to the NYSTA. The New York State legislature mandated that in 1992.
The New York State Thruway has been carrying cars and trucks for since the 1950s. Like other highways built in that era, it has been updated, upgraded and carries a much higher volume of traffic than it did when it was opened.