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PICKING WNY'S POCKET
THRUWAY AUTHORITY AND STATE SHOULD MAKE DOWNSTATE DRIVERS, BOATERS PAY FAIR SHARE

The New York State Thruway Authority is living proof that no matter how bad something is, it can always get worse.

Consider that upstate and Western New York drivers using the Thruway are not only subsidizing some downstate highways, their tolls also are being used to underwrite the costs of operating the Erie Canal. As if that wasn't outrageous enough, the authority is considering raising tolls on the 426-mile mainline part of the Thruway. That means passenger car tolls would increase 25 percent. Commercial tolls would go up by at least 35 percent -- and in some cases 100 percent. The approval for the increases is expected next week.

Western New Yorkers are understandably tired of paying tolls so that downstate drivers can enjoy a smooth ride and boaters can enjoy low user fees. Interstate 287 is an 11-mile highway cutting across Westchester County. Interstate 84 is a 72-mile piece of road that goes along the Hudson Valley and is a major conduit to and from New England. The authority maintains those two stretches of road, but has no interest in charging tolls. The folks who operate the Thruway would much rather charge higher tolls to everybody else.

Even worse, drivers who use the Thruway also pay to maintain the 524-mile canal system that spans across upstate New York. Thruway tolls basically fund the $534 million in operating costs for the canal. And, as pointed out by News reporter Tom Precious, tolls were imposed on boaters in 1995, but they cover just a fraction of the costs of operating the canal, which includes maintaining locks and bridges. Tolls from boaters have taken in just $18.2 million over the past decade.

Interstates 287 and 84 came under Thruway Authority jurisdiction in 1991 as part of a fiscal gimmick because the Department of Transportation was having money problems. The authority is legally prevented from charging tolls on the roads. Gov. George Pataki and the Legislature could change that -- and pigs could also fly. It's politically easier to make Western New Yorkers pay a toll to get to work by traveling the 190 rather than charge downstate drivers a toll on roads maintained by the Thruway.

Western New York drivers have every right to wonder about the political machinations that allow drivers in affluent areas like Westchester County to avoid paying tolls while forcing those using Thruway roads in economically distressed areas like Buffalo to fork over 50 cents a trip. Call it the reverse Robin Hood syndrome -- take from the poor and give to the rich. This area has enough economic problems. Why add to the troubles? Imposing tolls for people simply to get around the Buffalo Niagara area and then sending part of that money downstate to maintain roadways for people who do not pay tolls is obscene.

The inequity needs to end. The cost of maintaining the state's roadways should be spread more equally, and a greater share of the costs of operating the canal needs to be covered by the boaters who use the system.

A little fairness, please.