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Local governments conveyed a strong message today to those weighing the future of the Thruway: Don't burden us with the cost of maintaining the interstate highway if tolls are removed in 1996.

During a round-table discussion this morning, officials representing towns, cities and counties said that keeping tolls on the 559-mile highway might be the best way to prevent as much as $400 million in annual costs from falling on their shoulders.

"We have a dedicated source of revenue already there," Lancaster Town Supervisor Stanley J. Keysa said. "I think the loss of that could seriously interrupt the ability to maintain quality standards on the Thruway."

And Erie County Public Works Commissioner John C. Loffredo added that he fears huge costs even if local governments get saddled with just exit ramps and overpasses.

"I see some real problems," he said, "because we can't deal with the problems we have now."

Carolyn Brown conducted the meeting for the Rockefeller Institute, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. She explained that the institute is gathering public input in preparation for a fall report from the Thruway Transition Advisory Council, which will recommend what steps to take when Thruway construction bonds are paid off in 1996. The discussion was held in the Mahoney State Office Building,

Among the options, she said, are retaining the tolls, developing a partial toll system or eliminating tolls. But any plan that reduces or eliminates tolls means some other entity must assume funding of the state's principal interstate, she acknowledged.

"We need to consider the implications of that kind of change on local governments," Ms. Brown said. "If the tolls are removed, a consequent revenue level must be met -- targeted at some level of maintenance."

The issues are receiving consideration because New York State seemed to commit itself in 1982 to removing tolls once the bonds were retired. But the $500 million to $600 million in federal aid expected in return has fallen to current estimates of only $332 million.

Because most experts see a shortage of about $400 million in 1996 if the tolls are eliminated, questions are surfacing about how the state would fill that gap because the Thruway Authority would be dissolved and the road would fall under control of the Department of Transportation.

Ms. Brown pointed out several expenses that would accompany a conversion to a free interstate, including loss of current toll revenues. Others include upgrading the highway to accommodate increased traffic, and adjusting approach roads for service without toll booths.

The current system offers many advantages because it provides adequate revenues from users, including those from out of state, said Patricia O. Rehak, vice president of the Greater Buffalo Development Foundation. As the area becomes increasingly attractive as a distribution center, she emphasized, a well maintained highway network becomes a crucial economic development factor.

"Should we really even be considering this?" she asked. "Who pays the bill if not for the toll?"

Local officials also pointed out that the Thruway is a major commuter route in the Buffalo area as well as an intercity highway, suggesting that some special toll status might be considered for Western New York.

Ms. Brown said the institute's recommendations would be completed in 1991 in time for inclusion in the Transition Advisory Council's report to the governor and Legislature next fall. Many experts familiar with the situation say a decision should be reached some time in 1992 in order to adequately prepare for 1996.

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