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Toll hike protesters seek Spitzer's help

More than 20 protesters marched across one of the Grand Island bridges Saturday and called on the governor to help put a stop to the proposed Thruway toll increases and remove the toll barriers for the Grand Island bridges.

During a morning rally near the north Grand Island bridges, members of the Niagara Falls citizens group LaSalle PRIDE and No GI Tolls asked Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer to assist in their fight.

Protesters, who marched across the northbound bridge waving signs and chanting, said they want the governor and representatives of the Thruway Authority to discuss the issue with residents at a meeting in Niagara Falls.

Removing the Grand Island tolls would save commuters money and eliminate air pollution from idling vehicles, they said. They also pointed to the successful removal of the Ogden and Breckenridge toll barriers in Buffalo last year.

Buffalo resident Jim Marranca said he opposes the planned toll hike because he's tired of having to pay more of his income to the state. He called the Grand Island tolls a "hidden tax."

"It's crazy, and I want to fight back," Marranca said.

Thruway officials plan to raise tolls by 10 percent in January for those who pay cash. Additional toll increases of 5 percent each in 2009 and 2010 were recently recommended by an authority committee.

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli has agreed to conduct an audit of the Thruway Authority, a move that follows a review of the authority's finances by The Buffalo News.

Rus Thompson, a Grand Island activist who runs the Web site www.nogitolls.com, questioned Spitzer's recent statements.

Last week, Spitzer publicly opposed toll increases by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for the New York City area.

A day earlier, Spitzer said he's "not in a position" to mandate what the Thruway Authority does.

"I beg to differ," Thompson said Saturday. "He's the chief executive officer of New York State. If anybody has the power or wherewithal to do it, he should. The authorities don't run the state. That's why we have the Assembly, Senate and the governor."

Protesters presented three state lawmakers with a petition containing more than 7,500 signatures calling for the removal of the Grand Island toll barriers.

The lawmakers present for the protest -- Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, D-Lewiston, and State Sens. Antoine Thompson, D-Buffalo, and George Maziarz, R-Newfane -- said they believe the issue will be discussed in Albany when the Legislature returns to session next month.

Spitzer spokesman Michael Whyland said the governor "will do everything he can to keep Thruway tolls down while at the same time being mindful of the need to invest in our infrastructure."

Grand Island residents will continue to pay a 9-cent toll (using EZ-Pass) under any proposal to increase tolls, a spokeswoman for the Thruway Authority said, noting it's been the same toll for residents since 1980.

Tolls are the primary source of revenue for the authority, which plans to complete more than $30 million in renovations on the south bridges by the end of 2009, said spokeswoman Betsy L. Graham.

Niagara Falls resident Joe McCoy said he drives across the Grand Island bridges three or four times per week. He wants to see the Grand Island toll barriers taken down.

"It does affect the pocketbook," McCoy said.

e-mail: abesecker@buffnews.com

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