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Open Thruway books Planned toll increases mandate look at authority expenses, state spending

This is what happens when public authorities get too big, too isolated and too focused on extraneous matters. They become too expensive. In the case of the New York Thruway Authority, that translates to a spate of rate increases in furtherance of a construction program it may not need and responsibilities it should not have.
It also means that Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, is exactly right in calling for an audit of the authority, whose leaders also need to publicly explain the reason they have ignored the congressman's request for financial information under the state Freedom of Information Law. Public authorities don't much like oversight, but that needs to be their problem, not their rate-payers.

The Thruway Authority is preparing to implement yet another toll increase and has already planned for more in each of the next two years. A previously authorized increase of 10 percent is to take effect in January. Among other things, that means a $1 toll for every trip onto Grand Island. E-ZPass users will see their 68-cent bridge toll rise to 95 cents in July, all but wiping out the price advantage of the electronic pass.
Then, in 2009 and 2010, the authority will pile on additional increases of 5 percent each, all on a highway system whose tolls were supposed to vanish more than a decade ago.
Several factors seem to be driving these increases. One is the authority's commitment to a $2.7 billion highway construction improvement program that even the authority's own consultants suggest isn't necessary. To be sure, the state's infrastructure requires routine upkeep -- remember the Minneapolis bridge collapse -- but the consultants say the Thruway system is in good shape.
Related to that is the painful rise in gasoline prices, which is keeping Thruway travel below predicted levels. The authority says it needs to raise tolls to meet the expenses of the $2.7 billion construction program it doesn't really seem to need. But it takes an insulated, unaccountable agency to respond to customers' financial pain by kicking them when they're down.
Finally, and perhaps most aggravating, the authority is forced by state law to finance two inappropriate missions: It is responsible for managing the state's canal system and for maintaining two toll-free highways near New York City. By themselves, those factors soak up $89 million a year.
Add in $16 million for health insurance for retired employees (who, like the current ones, pay no tolls when they use the system), and you've accounted for more than $100 million. Just this year's toll increase is expected to bring in an additional $27 million.
State Sen. Dale M. Volker recently suggested that the toll increase is occurring partly because Western New Yorkers demanded -- and got -- the removal of the Niagara Thruway toll booths. It was an odd thing for him to say, since he and other Republican candidates were happy to claim credit for the end of the tolls just before last year's state elections.
He's got it wrong. Volker and his compatriots in the Legislature need to protect their constituents. Along with the governor, they need to put a hold on this entire project until after State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli agrees to conduct, and then completes, the audit that Higgins wants. New Yorkers have a right to review the fiscal picture of this multibillion-dollar agency before they fork out millions of dollars more to underwrite questionable priorities.

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