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Higgins presses federal agency to lift Niagara Thruway tolls

Rep. Brian Higgins on Wednesday asked the Federal Highway Administration to review its funding agreements with the state and lift the tolls on the Niagara Thruway entering Buffalo.

In a letter sent Wednesday to the highway administration, the Buffalo Democrat noted that the Thruway Authority has bypassed former commitments to end the tolls.

Higgins also told the highway administration that Thruway sections routed through other upstate cities are toll-free. The toll inbound at Dingens Street and Breckenridge Street is 75 cents, up from 50 cents last year.

"The toll barriers create an impediment to economic development in Buffalo by discouraging employers to locate downtown, lest customers and employees be burdened with tolls," Higgins said.

"Yet despite possessing the weakest economy in the region, Buffalo is the only upstate urban area in New York that must endure tolls," Higgins said.

"Buffalo simply cannot afford to subsidize these portions of New York's interstate system and other transportation projects across the state through tolls on I-190 with what is, essentially, a Buffalo-only state level, and federally approved, tax."

Dan Gilbert, Thruway Authority spokesman, said that unlike turnpike routes in other upstate cities, the authority receives no state tax dollars for I-190 upkeep.

Gilbert said the Thruway built the entire Niagara section. Actually, congressional testimony in the 1960s disclosed that federal gasoline tax funds helped build the Niagara Thruway.

Higgins referred to a 1982 agreement between the federal government and the state that would allow the Thruway Authority to continue collecting tolls until its scheduled debt retirement in 1996.

Higgins said the agreement should be reconsidered in light of a 1968 state law that required the removal of tolls once the federal government began to reimburse the state for building the toll road.

That reimbursement began in 1991, with enactment of a six-year federal surface transportation program. Drafted by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the law provided $4.89 billion in extra aid to New York for including the Thruway in the Interstate Highway System.

The state received nearly $15 billion overall in transportation aid. Moynihan in 1998 asked the Thruway Authority to lift the Niagara section's tolls in consideration of all the money the state was getting. The 1991 federal law did allow the authority to continue taking tolls past 1996, but Higgins asked that the situation be reviewed under "basic notions of fairness."

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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