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State comptroller to audit Thruway plan for toll hike Agrees to determine if increase is needed

The state comptroller will audit the State Thruway Authority to determine if a proposed toll increase is necessary, state officials said Thursday.

Thruway officials, meanwhile, postponed a vote that had been scheduled for Monday on the increase. They cited a conflict in board members' schedules.

Two state senators and a congressman have asked State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli to look at the Thruway's books, a review they say should guide action on any toll increases.

DiNapoli's office did not return calls to comment, but two government officials said the comptroller, a Democrat, had approved the audit.

"The Senate majority conference holds strong reservations regarding the prospect of a potential increase in tolls on the Thruway, particularly in view of the significant additional financial burden that motorists are now already facing due to skyrocketing fuel costs," State Sens. Dale M. Volker of Depew and Thomas W. Libous of Binghamton, both Republicans, had written in a letter to DiNapoli. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., also has requested an audit.

Last week, a finance committee of the Thruway board had recommended a package that calls for proceeding with a previously approved increase averaging 10 percent in January, followed by 5 percent increases in each of the following two years. Discounts for 1.1 million E-ZPass customers also would be cut in half.

Thruway officials contend the increases -- generating an additional $90 million a year -- are necessary to offset lower-than-expected revenues from drivers who, because of higher fuel prices, have been cutting back using the 426-mile highway.

Critics, led by an association of trucking companies and the American Automobile Association, say the state should let the Thruway unload its responsibility for running the state's canal system. The fiscal gimmick, instituted in the early 1990s, pushed the canal system's costs out of the state's general fund and into the "off-budget" authority.

As a result, $80 million from Thruway tolls each year go toward running the Erie Canal and other waterways -- only slightly less than the projected additional revenue from the toll increases.

To avert a toll increase, the senators said, the state should examine moving the canal system into the budgets of the state's Departments of Environmental Conservation or the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Last week, administration officials said Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer is not considering such a move in his budget for the state fiscal year that will begin April 1.

State Senate officials insisted Thursday the issue likely will be wrapped into budget talks next spring.

Thruway officials cite the need for higher tolls to fund a $2.7 billion construction program already under way. Not raising tolls will force cutbacks in plans for improving roads and bridges, according to the agency.

Moving the canal system into the state's general fund could be a problem for the Spitzer administration. The governor's budget aides already are struggling with closing an expected $4.3 billion deficit next year, and the canal plan would add $80 million to that gap.

Higher gasoline prices have reduced Thruway travel, especially discretionary trips by weekenders and vacationers. In projections for the construction program, state officials estimated the number of vehicles using the system would grow 2.3 percent this year; it has risen by only a half percent.

Over the span of the construction program, which will run through 2011, the proposed toll increases were expected raise revenues by $360 million.

The Thruway board had been expected to approve the increases next week. Public hearings then would have been held around the state before final action by early spring.

In their letter Thursday to DiNapoli, Volker and Libous worried that higher tolls coupled with rising gas prices could cut further into Thruway traffic.

"This would not only lead to a related decline in Thruway revenues, but would also present additional problems for many upstate communities that have already been impacted by commercial vehicles, commuters and other motorists that seek alternative routs on local roads," the lawmakers wrote.


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