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Lawmakers target free rides on Thruway Toll flap highlights authority staff perk

Two local state lawmakers want to end the practice of Thruway Authority employees and board members riding the toll road free.

State Sen. George D. Maziarz and Assemblyman Sam Hoyt announced Wednesday they plan to introduce legislation that would require authority employees to pay when they travel the Thruway for personal purposes. They said disclosure Sunday by The Buffalo News that current and retired employees ride the Thruway free, regardless of purpose, is especially troublesome in light of the authority's proposal to raise tolls again.

"The free ride on the Thruway for current employees and people who no longer work there is largess at the taxpayers' expense -- and it should stop," said Hoyt, a Democrat who represents Buffalo and Grand Island.

"The Thruway Authority needs to go back and look at other cost-cutting measures before even suggesting a toll increase," said Maziarz, a Republican who represents a large part of Niagara County.

Five board members and 2,528 employees have unrestricted E-ZPasses, allowing for any and all Thruway travel. An additional 391 have passes that allow them to commute to and from work without paying tolls.

The News also reported that others getting free E-ZPasses for personal use include 413 employees of an authority subsidiary that operates the state canal system and 174 state troopers who patrol the Thruway. And 1,078 retirees of the authority, canal corporation and State Police enjoy lifetime passes.

Travel by these pass users accounted for 1.78 million trips -- about two-thirds of 1 percent of Thruway travel last year.

It's uncertain whether the legislation, if passed, would have much effect, aside from board members. Most of the passes are the byproduct of labor contracts between the authority and its unions. Generally speaking, laws cannot unilaterally alter contract terms.

"While the authority's most-recent employee contracts already place limitations on this benefit for new employees and retirees, the authority abides by all applicable laws when it negotiates contracts with its employees and will continue to do so," said spokeswoman Betsy Graham.

Also on Wednesday, Assemblyman Jack Quinn said the state should take back responsibility from the Thruway Authority for the operation of the state canal system. The canal system is costing the authority about $75 million this year in expenses.

"Removing the state canal system from under the control of the Thruway Authority would be a step in the right direction and reduce the need for future increases," said Quinn, R-Hamburg.

Cash tolls are scheduled to increase 10 percent in January, and the authority's governing board is to vote Monday on a recommendation to increase tolls by 5 percent in 2009 and again in 2010. The proposal prompted Rep. Brian Higgins to ask the state comptroller to audit Thruway finances.


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