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A decision on the future of tolls on New York's main interstate highway must be settled within the next 18 months, the chairman of the state Thruway Authority said Tuesday.

Peter Tufo said he will ask Gov. Cuomo and the State Legislature to decide whether to keep or remove tolls on the 559-mile highway, even though bonds paying off the road will not expire until mid-1996.

"That decision should be made in the next 18 months because the current economic uncertainties could affect long-term planning," Tufo said during a meeting with editors and reporters of The Buffalo News.

A number of items must be taken into consideration, the chairman explained, to plan for either a transition to state control or continued tolls. Transportation planners must be given four to five years' leeway to address such questions as the design of interchanges, how the road will be maintained, and who will pay for it.

In addition, he said the Thruway's staff soon will reach the point where it must make plans for after 1996.

"The confluence of all these things makes it imperative that this decision be made in the short term rather than the long term," Tufo said.

The Thruway's future is under study by the Transition Advisory Council, a 13-member panel appointed by the governor and Legislature charged with making a recommendation about the road's future. Since 40-year bonds purchased in the 1950s to finance construction will be fully paid in 1996, the road theoretically could be turned over to the state Department of Transportation for use as a free interstate.

But many, including Western New York municipal officials as recently as last week, have called for retention of the tolls. They cite increased costs to municipalities as a prime reason, while those on the state level ask how they will fill the gap left by the end of tolls.

"We could easily be looking at a $400 million gap in 1997 for maintenance of the road," Tufo said. "In the end, it's a question of do you prefer tolls or do you prefer taxes, because the money has to come from somewhere."

Tufo also said during the authority's first Buffalo meeting that state prison inmates may be used in Thruway cleanup programs.

He emphasized that nothing is official yet but added that the authority would like to take advantage of a ready-made labor force.

"We're in negotiations right now regarding use of state inmates in cleaning programs," Tufo said.

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