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PLAN TO HIKE TOLLS LEAVES MOTORISTS FUMING

Prepare to fork over more coins at Thruway toll booths this summer.

The Thruway Authority proposes to raise tolls in June by as much as 3 percent. After that, tolls would rise each year based on how much construction costs increase across the country.

The authority crafted the plan to pay for construction projects along the 641-mile toll road. The projects include steel repairs at the North Grand Island Bridge and widening the Thruway between the Niagara Thruway and Route 400.

Tolls would not increase by more than 3 percent in any year, said John R. Platt, the Thruway Authority's executive director.

"There will never, ever be a large toll hike," Platt said. "It's a very gradual increase."

New York last raised tolls in 1988 -- by 30 percent.

Predictably, talk of hiking tolls drew quick criticism from motorists and trucking company executives.

Many of them are still angry over the state's broken promise that the tolls would end in 1996.

"I think it's criminal," said Erskine Lattimore, 51, of Rochester. "Those tolls were supposed to be removed several years ago."

Lattimore paid $1.30 Friday to drive from Rochester to Buffalo, where he planned to catch a flight to Atlanta from Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

He doesn't buy the authority's argument that the increases are needed to pay for capital projects.

"That was part of the reason the tolls were never taken away in the first place," Lattimore said.

State leaders in 1992 passed the Thruway 2000 bill that retained tolls and also diverted a portion of the toll proceeds for the upkeep of the Erie Canal and for other development projects across the state. Since then, the authority also has borrowed enough money to ensure that tolls will remain until at least 2027, according to some reports.

One trucking industry leader delivered a biting critique of the authority's plan, and he cited the canal subsidy as an unfair burden.

"They shouldn't even talk about a toll hike until the canal is removed from the Thruway," said William G. Joyce Jr., president of the New York State Motor Truck Association.

The canal costs the authority an estimated $50 million each year, give or take several million dollars based on federal aid, Platt said.

Already burdened by rising fuel costs and state taxes, trucking officials wonder how the authority can make it more expensive for them to deliver goods across the state without at least consulting them.

"Adding higher tolls to an industry that is already the highest taxed in the nation is the exact opposite of what Gov. (George E.) Pataki says is necessary to rebuild the upstate economy," Joyce said.

But some motorists, particularly those who live outside New York, said they could tolerate a toll hike if it ensured that the Thruway remains in good condition.

"The Thruway is always clear of snow and well-maintained," said Mark Dumblosky of Pittsburgh, who took a travel break at a plaza in Clarence on his way back home. "This is really a good road."

Dumblosky and his wife, Barbara, have driven to Rochester and back four times since August to visit their son, a Rochester Institute of Technology student.

The trip north is always nicer than when the family drives on toll roads and freeways in other states to visit relatives.

"There are a lot of potholes on the Pennsylvania Turnpike," he said.

The three-member Thruway Authority board this week instructed the Thruway staff to begin the process for a toll hike.

Four public hearings will be held on the plan, tentatively scheduled in different parts of the state in April. Meanwhile, the plan will make its way through the state's regulatory review process, Platt said.

After the plan clears the regulatory process, the board will schedule a final vote on hiking the tolls for this year.

The final decision belongs to the Thruway Authority board -- not Pataki or the State Legislature.

The authority this week unveiled a $275 million plan for capital projects across the state this year. More than $1 billion would be spent during the next five years, said Thruway Authority Chairman Louis R. Tomson.

"This aggressive capital program will allow the Thruway, which is already one of the safest highways in the nation, to improve safety and ease congestion for the millions of New Yorkers who rely on our roads," Tomson said in a written statement.

The Buffalo area projects would cost the authority $73 million, with other projects costing $116 million in the New York City area, $44 million in Albany and $42 million in Rochester and Syracuse.

Assemblyman Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, called the lane-widening project between the Niagara Thruway and Route 400 long overdue.

"This project will go a long way toward relieving a bottleneck that hundreds of thousands of motorists face every day," Tokasz said.

Tolls pay for roughly 67 percent of capital projects, with the authority borrowing the rest.

To finance the capital plan, the authority wants to index Thruway tolls to the rate of construction cost increases.

The authority would increase tolls according to the Construction Cost Index, an index published monthly by the Engineering News Record and based on the average costs of construction material and labor in 20 cities across the country.

Toll rates would not rise in any year the construction index falls, Platt said.

And the board doesn't necessarily have to approve toll hikes in coming years even if the construction index rises, Platt said.

If this index system had been in place the past three years, tolls would have increased an average of 2 percent each year, Platt said.

Once the index establishes the toll hike, and the board goes along, the authority would then decide where it's practical to collect the increase.

Tolls on the portions of the Thruway where tickets are used -- here tolls are calculated by multiplying the rate by the distance traveled -- would be rounded to the next nickel after each hike.

The 57-mile trip from Interchange 46 in Rochester to Interchange 50 in Williamsville now costs $1.80. Come June, that same trip would cost $1.90 under the new plan, the authority said.

Tolls at bridges and barrier stations, however, are collected in multiples of a quarter, to reduce backups.

Tolls at many of these locations would be increased -- but not collected right away.

For example, the toll booths at the Buffalo city line near South Ogden Street collect 50 cents from each car heading north to downtown.

Under the plan, a 3 percent increase would put the toll at 51.5 cents after June. But collectors are not going to collect 51.5 cents, or even 55 cents.

The authority will wait until all the yearly increases collectively push the toll to 63 cents. At that time -- sometime around 2007 if the construction index increases hold steady at 3 percent -- the toll collectors would begin collecting 75 cents from each car.

So while the tolls could increase each year, the collection of the increase will be deferred until the toll, as rounded, requires the collection of an additional quarter.

In a related proposal, the authority wants to reduce the number of vehicle classifications from 43 to nine, Platt said. Each classification has its own toll rate.

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