The New York State Thruway is nearly 570 miles long, 496 miles of which are tolled. Later this month, the Thruway will officially celebrate its 57th birthday; apparently a long enough stretch of time that a local mystery appears doomed to remain buried.
Whether you’ve screamed it in frustration or simply pondered it in the deep recesses of your mind, chances are you’re probably asked yourself the same question the Saugerties Times set out to get to the bottom of a few weeks ago: Why are there two separate toll booths at Exit 20?
Having a separate access point for traffic headed in both directions certainly isn’t unprecedented, but neither is it customary, particularly on the Thruway and especially in Ulster County. At Exit 19 in Kingston, northbound traffic exiting and entering the Thruway join up with southbound traffic at a fairly well-organized but lone row of booths. The same is true at New Paltz (Exit 18.) So what happened in Saugerties?
Well, it turns out that finding the answer to that question wasn’t all that easy. In fact, what we found was even more questions. In an effort to get to the bottom of the story, the Saugerties Times spoke to historians and local residents, asked someone at the New York State Thruway Authority who then got in touch with several retirees who were around when the Thruway was nothing more than a series of lines on a map and a future hope they’d eventually turn into actual roads.
It’s fitting that in a story about the New York State Thruway – even one which focuses specifically on one tiny aspect – the old adage about the journey being the thing turned out to be true. For every false turn and decades-old rumor dusted off and re-circulated, we never seemed to get too close to the actual truth. But maybe the truth is something with a little of each of the theories sewn together.
Marjorie Block, president of the Saugerties Historical Society recalled a childhood rumor that related to the opening of Ulster County Community College, better known today as SUNY Ulster. The college opened in 1961 after an extensive search for a property large enough to house the campus and possible future expansion. Winston Farm, located just off the southbound exit of the Thruway was a possibility, though Block remembered the splitting of the access points as being potentially connected to a campus that would have extended to the opposite side of the Thruway as well.
“I think that’s why it happened,” Block said, adding that she couldn’t say for sure without conducting research. “It would have corresponded with different parts of the college. They were speculating about the two (Thruway and college) at the same time. They’ve always been looking for something to put in at Winston Farm, even back then.”
Another rumor that’s worked its way through local lore was repeated more than once in the research for this story: state Senator Arthur Wicks managed to squeeze in three Thruway exits in his constituency while he was majority leader, a move that so irritated his fellow politicians on the other side of the Hudson that it eventually led to the decision to run the commuter rail line exclusively on the East side of the river.
Richard Frisbie of Hope Farm Press & Bookshop remembered having heard a variation of that story years ago, with the addition of two “Hot Shoppes” locations along a small stretch of the Thruway that runs through Saugerties and their associated revenue part of the political jockeying.
R.W. Groneman, spokesman for the New York State Thruway Authority, expressed enthusiasm for the hunt, and wound up contacting a number of retired colleagues, some of whom were on the job in the mid-’50s. He called back a few weeks later with the sad news that he hadn’t gotten very far.
“Those who did remember may have even retired in the last wave of retirements,” he said. “But they didn’t know why.”
Groneman then offered a hypothesis that may actually shed some light on the matter.
“My guess, and it’s purely a guess is maybe it’s due to the topography,” Groneman said. “Maybe there was a stream or land ownership issues.”
June 24, 1954 was the official opening day of the Governor Thomas E. Dewey Thruway considers. It was then that a section of the Thruway between Rochester and Utica was unveiled, though it didn’t connect with its most southern point for another two years. The expansion, which included the introduction of a usage toll – along with an eight-dollar “bargain permit” that covered unlimited mileage – would connect a series of shorter stretches of road together at the Thruway, incorporated a 9.4-mile segment of originally toll-free road that opened on December 16, 1953 and ran between Saugerties and Kingston.
While the Saugerties-to-Catskill leg was completed in 1950, it was officially opened at a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Governor Dewey on October 26, 1954. The local history of the Thruway, as covered In the Spring 1998 issue of Ulster Magazine by writer Lei Isaacs, is one of progress punctuated by property split in two by the encroaching thoroughfare.
Fred Costello, Jr., deputy Supervisor in the town of Saugerties said he believed that Groneman’s theory about topography wasn’t too far off base.
“My understanding, and I’m definitely not an expert, is when the Thruway was being built there were soil problems in Saugerties,” he said, before adding another wrinkle to the story: While it may be the only local exit with two entirely separate toll booth areas, that wasn’t always the case.
“At the time the Thruway opened, I don’t think it was the only one,” Costello said. “But over the years they’ve gone back and changed them.”
In fact, Costello noted, Saugerties has been under consideration for the move before, too. In the lead-up to Woodstock ’94, held in Saugerties, planning consultants suggested building a new interchange to deal with the anticipated traffic issues. That possibility was mooted in favor of a temporary exit related to the festival that was subsequently shut down.
According to Costello, the town was recently told by another consultant that consolidating the toll booths and the associated need to connect traffic exiting and entering both the northbound and southbound sides of the Thruway would cost an estimated $15-20 million to complete, making it extremely unlikely for the foreseeable future.
“It would obviously have to be a large project to drive those costs,” Costello said.
Still, changes could come to Saugerties conceivably impact the future of Exit 20. One of three possible rotary interchanges proposed in Saugerties would be constructed adjacent to the southbound access point of the Thruway at Route 32.
“When we did the Saugerties Area Mobility Analysis, that was what was presented to us,” Costello said. “At some point, I think that is one of the ones that is going to gain traction.”