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Audit leery of need to raise tolls

In a new audit, State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli again raises doubts whether the Thruway Authority needs the recent toll increases to pay for construction work.

DiNapoli also notes that the improvement program, currently put at $2.7 billion, will cost much more and take much longer to complete.

While Thruway projects are being cut back, the authority is moving forward with construction for projects not related to the Thruway, he pointed out.

Earlier this year, DiNapoli said that the authority should delay its planned toll increases while he audited capital spending plans.

"The Thruway Authority had not looked at its own spending or prioritized projects," he said. "Now the Thruway is pushing back the very projects it used to justify the toll increase in the first place. It begs the question even more: Were the toll hikes necessary?"

Earlier this month, The Buffalo News reported that Thruway officials were postponing or canceling about $430 million in planned improvements including the long-promised relocation of the congested Williamsville toll barrier and construction of a speed-toll-collection system for E-ZPass holders at a new barrier 11 miles to the east.

They blamed skyrocketing costs, driven by high demand in China for steel and concrete, and rising asphalt costs resulting from higher-than-projected oil prices.

DiNapoli faulted Thruway officials for not publishing a list of projects, making monitoring the status of the work difficult.

Of 486 projects examined, 90 were ahead of schedule, 151 were on schedule, and 161 were lagging. Another 66 projects had been killed. Costs were up $514 million, or nearly 20 percent, over projections, the audit found. The capital program runs from 2005 to 2011.

DiNapoli said that 31 of 59 projects examined last year and this year had increased in cost by 82 percent.

In its written response, which is contained in the audit, Thruway officials said the changes made to the capital program were "responsible and necessary" because of economic changes that altered costs of the original projects.

Michael Fleischer, the authority's executive director, faulted the audit for ignoring the Thruway's safety record and for claiming the agency has not prioritized capital projects.

Still, Fleischer said the agency accepts DiNapoli's recommendations, including more open reporting.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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