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THRUWAY TOLLS TO RISE
FOR CARS, AVERAGE HIKE IS 25%, FOR TRUCKS, 35%

Most Thruway drivers will see their tolls rise by at least 25 percent come mid-May, under a plan given final approval Monday by the New York State Thruway Authority.

The higher tolls, which could hit some truckers with rate hikes as much as 130 percent, will help pay for a $2.6 billion construction program along the highway system over the next seven years, including repairing aging bridges and bringing new "highway speed" E-Z-Pass toll lanes to congested barriers like Williamsville.

On average, passenger car tolls will go up 25 percent and the toll for commercial vehicles, 35 percent.

It is the first Thruway toll increase since 1988.

The move includes raising the tolls at the Breckenridge and Ogden barriers and the Grand Island bridges from 50 cents to 75 cents. Critics have branded these tolls a "back-door commuter tax."

The change will take the present $12.10 toll to drive a car from Buffalo to the end of the mainline north of New York City to $15.15, while a truck running the same route will have to pay an additional $19.85 above the current $57 toll. Trucking companies that ship everything from food to gasoline say the higher tolls will be passed on to consumers.

The toll hike will have less of an impact on drivers enrolled in E-ZPass, a program designed to ease commuter passage through toll barriers but that, until now, gave no discounts. Passenger cars with E-ZPass will get a 10 percent reduction off the new tolls while trucks will see a 5 percent reduction and also be eligible for volume discounts.

For example, E-ZPass drivers passing through the Breckenridge toll barrier will pay 68 cents instead of the 75 cents non-E-ZPass drivers will pay.

Grand Island residents will see their current toll-barrier discount remain at 9 cents. Others transiting the Grand Island barrier will see the toll rise from 50 cents to 75 cents, with a 68 cents toll for E-Z-Pass users.

The Thruway's current commuter rate program, used by about 26,000 drivers at the Grand Island barriers and at a Hudson River bridge crossing between Westchester and Rockland counties, will be expanded to other zones in the state, including the Breckenridge and Ogden barriers. Drivers who enroll in that program will, for instance, see the Breckenridge fee remain at 50 cents. In turn, though, drivers must guarantee they will make 20 trips a month through the barrier.

"I think people understand that it's been a long time," Thruway Authority Executive Director Michael Fleischer said of the toll increase.

Fleischer defended the financial hit on drivers, saying the Thruway system must function on its own without the kinds of state funding assistance that other roads get.

"There are no free roads," he said after the Thruway board enacted the fare hike, which was proposed last December. "They don't plow themselves. They don't repair themselves. Nobody likes a toll increase. All we can do is tell people this is what we have to do to maintain a safe, efficient road."

Thruway officials also said the toll hike is needed if the 50-year-old highway is to be properly rehabilitated. They said that surface repairs are not enough and that the foundation of the road itself needs major repairs.

The additional toll revenue also will help fund technological improvements, such as installing a new E-ZPass system at the congested Williamsville toll barrier.

Currently, annual toll revenue is $440 million and expected to rise to $583 million by 2006.

Thruway users also see a large chunk of the tolls going to maintain the state's canal system, as well as two toll-free highways downstate.

The Buffalo News recently reported that $750 million of Thruway toll money has been diverted to the canals and Interstates 84 and 287 since 1991, when the cash-starved state ordered the Thruway agency to take over the operation of those waterways and highways.

Thruway officials said they would visit the issue of raising fees on the state canal system.

Wally Smith, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association of Western and Central New York, said a majority of drivers in a poll taken late last year opposed a rate hike if money was to be diverted for the canal operations. He said drivers did, however, support a toll hike if the extra money is used to improve the Thruway.

"We did not oppose their toll proposal, since we saw the need to keep the system a good system, which we feel it is," Smith said.

Thruway officials insisted Monday that the canal system will not see an increase in operational or capital funding from the new toll hike. They said the additional money would go, instead, to Thruway improvements.

But critics noted that about a fourth of tolls now go to fund nonmainline Thruway efforts, such as the canals and the downstate interstates.

To win support for the hike, Thruway officials went on the offensive -- unlike the last time a toll hike was proposed, in 2000, when it was defeated by a public and political uproar.

This time, the agency held public hearings around the state and released glossy publications showing projects that would be done with the additional toll money. Authority officials also met with AAA, business organizations and truckers.

Friday, Thruway officials released a new version of the proposed toll hike, reducing the hit on many truckers.

Though they originally said their average toll hike would amount to 35 percent for commercial vehicles, officials also proposed a simplified rate structure for trucks, taking the current 43 classifications down to nine. The plan, however, drove up the real rate hike by between 60 percent and 130 percent for many trucking firms.

"Nobody likes a toll increase," said William Joyce, president of the New York State Motor Truck Association, who praised Thruway officials for making changes to reduce the sky-high toll hikes many truckers were facing.

The Thruway capital plan includes refurbishing about 127 miles of highway and 74 bridges in Western New York, as well as adding four new noise barriers near Buffalo, higher speed E-Z-Pass lanes in Lackawanna, adding 89 truck stop parking spaces in the area. In all, work between Rochester and the Pennsylvania line is expected to total $578 million over seven years.

The toll hike has the backing of Gov. George E. Pataki.

Todd Alhart, a Pataki spokesman, said the governor "knows that we need to ensure that the Thruway remains the safest, most reliable highway in America. The additional investments being made will allow the Thruway Authority to continue to maintain and improve safety and reliability along this critical travel corridor."

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com