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PROPOSED TOLL HIKE STIRS LIVELY DEBATE AT HEARING

If the Thruway Authority would get out of the canal business, perhaps it wouldn't need to increase tolls, several speakers told authority officials Monday night.

About 50 people turned out at the Donovan State Office Building for a public hearing on the authority's proposed toll increase to fund a $2 billion reconstruction project.

Some of the 25 speakers represented special interests -- including engineers and construction workers -- who spoke in favor of the project because it would create jobs.

Trucking companies and public officials spoke against it, saying an increase would put the region at a further economic disadvantage.

Officials also repeated the complaint that toll barriers in Buffalo and the Southtowns amount to a "commuter tax" not imposed in other areas.

Michael R. Fleischer, the authority executive director, said the toll increase would be the first since 1988 and the 25 percent increase for cars is about half the inflation rate.

The 50-year-old highway needs major improvements to remain safe and reliable, he said.

Several trucking officials said their rates will increase far more than the 35 percent -- some said it will be close to 100 percent -- claimed by the authority, once the various classifications for weights and number of axles are taken into consideration.

Fleischer acknowledged that is true and said the authority is studying recalculating and simplifying the toll schedule for trucks.

Several speakers brought up the fact the Thruway was supposed to have been toll-free by now and said if the authority hadn't been given the responsibility for the State Barge Canal, perhaps it wouldn't need an increase.

"We were clearly hoodwinked" by the promise the road would be toll free by 1996, Bill Joyce of the New York State Motor Truck Association said. Thruway tolls "should be a pure user fee. The canal should not be supported by higher tolls," he added.

He and other truckers said the toll increase amounts to a $6-an-hour hike in operating costs.

Mark Janis of Path Truck Lines said his firm is just emerging from bankruptcy and the increase will jeopardize more than 100 jobs.

But Mark Kirsch, business agent for Operating Engineers Local 17 representing 1,400 construction workers, said the construction project will create jobs. But, he said, the tolls need to be a true user fee "and not disappear into the general fund."

Michael Leydecker of the American Council of Engineers said investing in the Thruway will be good for the economy as well as maintaining safety and speed of travel.

Erie County Clerk David J. Swarts said he represented 30,000 motorists who signed petitions calling for the end to the "commuter tax" posed by the toll barriers and for moving the Lackawanna barrier farther west.

Hamburg Councilwoman Kathleen Hochul said she has been battling the authority on the same issues for years and said her children are prepared to take up the cause when she's gone.

Common Council Majority Leader Marc A. Coppola and Lovejoy Council Member Richard A. Fontana called for removing the Breckenridge and South Odgen Street toll barriers, saying they unfairly tax residents. Fontana said removal of the barriers has been promised for generations, and there are no similar tolls in Rochester or Syracuse.

e-mail: ternst@buffnews.com

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