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For Paladino, Thruway tolls prolong war

He thought he won when the odious Ogden and Breckenridge toll barriers came down.

What he learned was: When it comes to the Thruway Authority, one battle does not win a war.

"Their arrogance is so deep," Carl Paladino said. "They think they can plow ahead and nothing will touch them."

Paladino is the Buffalo developer notorious for his volcanic outbursts, legendary feuds and civic impatience. That impatience served us well when the authority hiked the tolls two years ago. An irate Paladino sued the authority to erase the I-190 tolls that, by agreement, should have ended years ago.

The tolls, which essentially were an $11 million commuter tax, came down last year.

The battle was won, but the fight had just begun.

A Sunday article by Buffalo News reporter Jim Heaney laid out the authority's wasteful ways. It is one outrage after another -- from its funding of an unrelated state canal system, to its insistence on $2.7 billion in unnecessary road improvements, to the state diverting federal dollars for the Thruway into the Albany budget.

Money from our Thruway tolls feeds projects and payrolls that have nothing to do with roads and bridges. Federal dollars that should be used to slice or erase the tolls instead are used to pad the state's budget. Meanwhile, the authority will jack up tolls by 10 percent in January, followed by 5 percent hikes in 2009 and 2010. If its intent was to tick off Paladino -- and the rest of us -- it succeeded.

Intense, dark-haired and heavy-lidded, Paladino has an anti-Thruway Authority passion that borders on obsession. The conference table in his downtown office is strewn with a dozen spiral notebooks, filled with Thruway Authority ledger sheets and budget reports. Two accordion files are overstuffed with authority documents extracted by Freedom of Information requests.

The fight is not about budget sheets and bonding contracts. Not really. It is about the nation's longest toll road -- and its abuse of the folks who use it.

"This is about the ability of the little guy to stand up to [the authority]," said Paladino, "and demand service for a reasonable price . . . My intent is to inspire the community."

He is an unlikely white knight, given his legendary temper and profanity-laced tirades. Paladino's longtime feud with former Common Council President Jim Pitts was the civic equivalent of Frazier vs. Ali. But in the Thruway Authority's abuses, he has taken on a noble cause.

A chief complaint is the state's using our Thruway tolls to prop up the the 524-mile canal system, which will lose $75 million this year. The canal system should be in the state budget, to stand or fall on its merits, instead of hidden behind the authority's skirts.

"It's the old Albany two-step," Paladino said. "The tolls are an indirect tax, to hide the money the state is [frittering] away on the canal system."

The battle is on. Paladino is talking about suing the authority, because upcoming toll increases will presumably force overtaxed truckers onto alternative roads. It would be nice if local state lawmakers, instead of a private citizen, championed the cause. But raising a fuss might cost them perks and privileges.

"We have to get relief through the courts," said Paladino, "because our state [representatives] are so weak."

Rep. Brian Higgins joined the fray, calling for an audit that would force the authority to open its books. A similar tactic helped Higgins in the fight to extract more relicensing dollars from the State Power Authority.

One way or another, we need to tame the state's collection of wasteful, unaccountable authorities. Time and again, they exact a toll on us.


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