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Thruway messes with the wrong guy

Now they have gone too far.

They have done a lot to us. But this is one line they should not have crossed.

They slapped an $11 million commuter tax on us. Then they raised it. They went back on a promise to make it go away. They make us pay, when folks in other upstate cities don't. They take money from our pauper city and funnel it to deeper pockets downstate. The bureaucrats running the Thruway Authority crossed a lot of lines. But now they crossed a line you don't ever want to cross in this town.

They made Carl Paladino mad.

The downtown building owner and developer is a walking fuse, a bubbling volcano, a valve-less pressure cooker, a tachometer needle crossing into red. He is a man of deep conviction and little restraint. Take an Al Pacino rant, multiply by two, and you're still not in Paladino country. He is a good guy to have on your side, a nightmare of an enemy. And some bureaucrats are about to find out.

Paladino recently sued the Thruway Authority to take down the two Niagara Thruway toll barriers that have -- illegally, claims Paladino -- picked our pockets for years. It hurts workers in his office buildings. It hurts all of us.

He is not alone. The county joined the lawsuit. Separate towns are lining up.

The toll booths are on the road that half-circles the city. They were supposed to go away when the Authority got money from Washington. The money came 10 years ago. The tolls stayed.

When the Authority jacked up the 50-cent toll by another quarter last year, Mount Paladino erupted. "I said, 'These greedy, selfish bastards, they can't treat us like this,' " recalled Paladino in his downtown office. "It hurts downtown. It hurts the image of the city. What unbelievable arrogance."

To add insult to injury, the Authority recently pulled his EZ-Pass for going too fast through a booth. "That really bleeping ticked me off," he said.

Wiry and dark-haired, with Humphrey Bogart eyes, Paladino's short fuse and frequent eruptions makes him seem larger than he is. Not that he only has one side. Paladino can be soft-spoken and soft-hearted. He is a loyal friend who gives anonymously to charities. An office wall is covered with pictures of his two grandkids. But when he blows, four-letter bombs rain from the sky.

Unlike Mount St. Helens, he blows a lot. For years, volatile ex-Council president Jim Pitts played Ali to Paladino's Frazier. Business leader Andrew Rudnick is a frequent target. Paladino has gone ballistic on preservationists and anti-casino types. He is a no-holds-barred force for downtown interests, which often mesh with self-interest.

When a visitor noticed a desk ornament reading "Relax" in his office, Paladino pulled a framed message off a bookshelf. It read: "The Romans didn't build a great empire by holding meetings. They did it by killing everyone who stood in their way."

Laughing, Paladino said, "That's closer to the real me." And now the Thruway Authority stands in his way.

Authority officials claim the tolls are needed to maintain roads and bridges. But other upstate cities don't have these tolls. The booths have been here since 1968, drip by drip draining us, $11 million out of our pockets last year. Seventy-five cents at a time. For each daily commuter, it's 200 bucks a year. We're not getting nickel-and-dimed to death. We're being drawn-and-quartered.

You can buy a 19-inch TV for $200. Spend a night in Toronto. Take the folks out to dinner. Buy a decent suit. Pay five city parking tickets.

Or you can throw it into the bottomless maw of the Thruway Authority.

"Yeah, I'm mad," Paladino said. "I'm not going to let them go on this one."

He shouldn't. Neither should the rest of us.


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