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ESCAPING THRUWAY TOLLS
COLLECTIONS SUBSIDIZE TWO DOWNSTATE ROADS; MONEY ALSO USED TO SUPPORT CANALS

Before today is over, about 145,000 vehicles will have traveled on Interstate 287, an 11-mile highway that cuts across Westchester County.

About 40 miles north, another 69,000 vehicles will travel on Interstate 84, a 72-mile road that traverses the Hudson Valley and is a major conduit to and from New England.

Both are part of the New York State Thruway system -- yet not a single car or truck will pay a penny in tolls to use them.

Instead, all those motorists on the rest of the Thruway -- including the ones making the daily commute between the Southtowns and Buffalo, or from Grand Island to Buffalo -- are subsidizing those downstate roads.

There's more. Thruway drivers also are the chief source of money of four canals, including the Erie Canal, which would have dried up years ago were it not for the Thruway tolls that go to maintain the locks, bridges and the waterway that carries a relative blip of boating traffic.

Now the Thruway Authority is looking to hike tolls on the Thruway, the nation's longest toll road. Passenger car tolls would rise 25 percent and commercial tolls by at least another 35 percent and in some cases as high as 100 percent. Approval of the increases is expected next week.

But no one has suggested asking the thousands of travelers along I-287 and I-84 to begin paying tolls to fund the operations of those highways, and there is no plan to demand pleasure and commercial boaters to chip in more to use the canal system.

For Thruway drivers, their subsidies have been sizable. Since 1991, Thruway users have seen more than $750 million of their toll money shifted for the operations of the 80 miles of interstates 84 and 287 that the Thruway Authority maintains, the 524-mile canal system that winds its way across upstate New York and other nonmainline uses, according to government documents and interviews with Thruway officials.

Truckers air views

While motorists may not realize their Thruway tolls help subsidize other highways and the canals, it hasn't escaped the trucking industry.

"They're making us pay for something that we'll never get any use out of," said Eric Hoxsie, chief financial officer of Hazmat Environmental Group, a Lackawanna trucking company that will see its $10,000-a-month mainline Thruway toll bill rise by 58 percent under the toll hike proposal.

Hoxsie and others believe the state should put tolls on the two downstate highways, or at least shift them off the Thruway's books. Not doing so "penalizes upstate New York for roads that people near New York City ought to be paying for themselves," he said.

They also believe the state should look at ways to fund the canal system -- either selling it, getting the federal government to take it over or shifting it to a state fund -- that will spread its costs to all New Yorkers.

Interstate 287 was transferred from the Department of Transportation to the Thruway Authority in 1991. It was derided then as a fiscal gimmick, because the DOT was having fiscal problems and the Thruway was seen as a cash cow, able, unlike the state's general fund, to take on the road's costs.

At about the same time, the operations and maintenance of I-84 was turned over to the Thruway agency, although the authority does not own the highway.

The transfers and maintenance shift were made under former Gov. Mario Cuomo.

For political reasons -- key legislators and the governor did not want to alienate voter-rich, swing areas like Westchester County -- the highway transfer law prohibited tolls from being imposed on I-84 and I-287.

A year later, state officials shifted another money-losing operation to the Thruway: the state's canal system.

So far, I-84 has cost Thruway users about $140 million since its takeover, while I-287, also known as the Cross Westchester Expressway, has cost about $30 million, officials said.

The canal has been the major expense of these new outside entities. Since its transfer, Thruway tolls have funded $534 million in operating costs. Canal tolls were imposed on boaters in 1995, but they hardly made a dent in the costs: only $18.2 million in revenues have come from boaters over the past decade.

Last year, Thruway tolls brought in an estimated $437 million.

The costs of taking on these nonmainline expenses have grown over the years, and critics say it's only going to worsen in the decade ahead.

Gov. George E. Pataki and the Legislature could have changed the law that forbids tolls on I-287 and I-84, but never considered doing so, legislators and Thruway officials said.

Putting tolls on the two highways or moving them or the canal system out of Thruway is not on the horizon, said Sen. Thomas Libous, Senate Transportation Committee chairman. In part, it would make too big a hit on the state's general fund, he said.

"Is it right? Probably not," the Binghamton Republican said. "But we're not in a position at this time to make any changes."

The cost shift doesn't sit well with the American Automobile Association, which opposed the highway and canal transfers more than a decade ago.

"The state unloaded other transportation requirements on the Thruway and it's as simple as that," said Wally Smith of AAA of Western and Central New York.

Canal revenue an issue

But don't look for AAA to call for tolls on I-84 or I-287; it doesn't back tolls imposed on existing highways, and its downstate members wouldn't be happy, either.

The canal system, where boaters can buy seasonal passes for as little as $25, is another matter for AAA.

"We should be re-examining the extent to which drivers are required to underwrite canal operations," said John Corlett, an AAA lobbyist.

Thruway officials, after listening to a chorus of canal complaints in recent public hearings in Buffalo and elsewhere over its toll hike plan, said last week they will examine the canal revenue issue, though they've committed to nothing.

The trucking industry has been most vocal.

Dale Nason, who owns a Springville trucking company, paid $8,000 in Thruway tolls last year. He said the toll hike plan will cost his firm -- unless he pulls his trucks off the Thruway -- another $4,400 a year in tolls.

"How'd you like to be the guy in Grand Island? He doesn't like paying the toll anyway going from Grand Island to Buffalo, and now he's paying not just to go across the bridge but to operate 84 and 287 and the canal system," Nason said.

Trucking interests are gun-shy about proposing tolls on roads like I-84 and I-287 for fear that years ahead it could lead state officials to look at placing tolls on other highways.

In the end, critics said I-84, I-287 and the canal system turn upside down the theory of a user fee system.

"If you think about tolls, they are the purest form of user fees. They're like stamps. You buy a stamp and your mail gets delivered. Nobody is going to buy a stamp to pay for the National Park Service," said William Joyce, president of the New York State Motor Truck Association.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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