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Thruway plan to take toll on motorists 10% rate hike in January to precede two 5% years

Thruway motorists will be paying about $90 million a year in higher tolls over the next three years under a plan approved Thursday by the Thruway Authority's Finance Committee.

Those paying cash will fork over more money, and the 1.1 million E-ZPass customers will have their discounts reduced.

The spike in tolls includes a previously approved 10 percent increase in January, followed by 5 percent hikes in each of the following two years. The additional revenues are needed to help fund an ambitious highway construction improvement program, the authority says.

Toll revenues to pay for the $2.7 billion program are not meeting expectations, largely because rising gasoline prices have cut the projected number of motorists along the 426-mile system.

One Thruway critic was already threatening legal action to try to halt the increase.

"The use of the Thruway to indirectly tax the taxpayers is an abomination," said Carl Paladino, a Buffalo developer whose lawsuit against the Thruway helped lead to the removal of the Breckenridge and Ogden Street toll barriers a year ago.

The toll hike is expected to receive final approval from the Thruway's board in two weeks.

Next June, E-ZPass users will see the current 10 percent discount they enjoy over cash customers reduced to 5 percent; the current 5 percent discount for commercial E-ZPass users will not be changed.

Higher tolls will be slapped on special barrier and bridge commuters, except the Grand Island booths, which will stay at current levels.

The cash price for crossing the Grand Island bridges, as previously approved, will rise from 75 cents to $1 in January and remain at that level through 2010. For E-ZPass users, the bridges will rise from 68 cents to 95 cents next July.

The authority also is planning a $32 million redecking project on the South Grand Island Bridges in 2008.

The system's commuter permit plan, providing free trips of 30 miles or less to the 30,298 motorists who have signed up, will rise to $84 from $80 in 2009 and to $88 in 2010. Critics say the state could avoid any toll increase if it did away with an early-1990s fiscal gimmick that placed the state's canal system under the auspices of the Thruway Authority -- which has motorists' tolls paying for pleasure boats and other crafts to travel free along the Erie Canal and other state waterways.

"I don't know why the canal system is untouchable," said John Corlett, a lobbyist with the American Automobile Association.

But the administration of Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, facing a $4.3 billion budget deficit, signaled Thursday that there is no plan to move the canal system back onto the state's general fund -- a move that would cost about $80 million annually but offset the need for a toll increase.

Thruway officials said its ongoing capital program, which runs until 2011, needs funding from toll revenues, as a pay-as-you-go funding stream for the construction is falling under projections. Thruway use, expected to grow 2.3 percent this year, is only rising by 0.5 percent as motorists take fewer discretionary trips involving the Thruway, officials say.

"We will be reviewing the Thruway proposal with a serious eye toward minimizing the impacts on the upstate economy," said Christine Anderson, a Spitzer spokeswoman. "We expect the Thruway to control costs but at the same time recognize the need for the Thruway to have sufficient resources to maintain the condition of the road."

The administration stopped noticeably short of saying it would do anything to try to reverse the toll hike.

"What a difference 18 months makes," said John Corlett, an Automobile Association of America lobbyist, referring to a plan last year by then-Gov. George E. Pataki to cut tolls by unloading the canal system from the Thruway's responsibility.

The canal system and some downstate highways were transferred to the Thruway during a budget downturn about 25 years ago.

William Joyce, president of the New York State Motor Truck Association, said, "We need to make sure that the dollars we are paying in user fees and in tolls be put back into the infrastructure that citizens are paying for. Tolls should go to the maintenance of the Thruway, not the canals."

Thruway officials said their plan is intentionally crafted to occur in stages in case some event occurs, such as the canals being transferred back to the state, which would negate the need for more toll money. The authority's board already has spoken in favor of the canal transfer.

The canal transfer would require the approval of Spitzer and the Legislature. Besides its annual operating expenses of about $80 million, about 10 percent, or $50 million, of the Thruway's total construction program will be spent on canal projects.

Michael Fleischer, the authority's executive director, said it is important "to meet our core responsibility for a safe system" that the previously approved $2.7 billion capital plan already under way not be scaled back, which would be another way to avoid the toll increase. In all, the added tolls and reduced discount on E-ZPass charges will be worth about $360 million by 2011, which is the year the current capital program ends.

Thruway officials also note toll hikes have come in well below inflation over the past generation, while its cost per mile is lower than most other toll roads in the Northeast.

But critics recall tolls were supposed to end years ago once the original construction bonds to build the system were paid off.

"Here's an authority that has generated a surplus since its inception. It plays with smoke and mirrors and expects the public to buy into its faulty decision-making," said Paladino.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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