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Niagara Thruway tolls may end in 2 weeks

Tolls at the Breckenridge and Ogden Niagara Thruway barriers are expected to end in about two weeks under a plan being negotiated at the Capitol, The Buffalo News has learned.

Senate Republicans, dipping into a discretionary pot of state money, are earmarking at least $14 million for the Thruway so that it can end the collection of tolls at the two barriers for at least a year.

Still unresolved is the question of taking down the barriers, though that may be an academic argument since both gubernatorial candidates already have vowed to end the 75-cent toll collections.

State Sen. Dale Volker, R-Depew, confirmed that Republicans who control the State Senate will turn to their pork barrel account -- the pot of money approved each year as part of the state budget -- to stop toll collections within about two weeks. Removing the barriers will take additional discussions, he said, because of the costs, as well as ensuring there is enough cash in the future to pay for maintenance along the stretch of highway.

A permanent fix could also include a plan to move the Williamsville toll barrier, which has been discussed for years.

"We are going to do a partial solution immediately, and that's to bring down the tolls at the Ogden and Breckenridge barriers," Volker said Saturday.

The Pataki administration Saturday confirmed the negotiations.

"We continue to work with Senator Volker, other members of the Senate majority, the Thruway Authority and other interested parties to provide
Western New York commuters with a permanent, revenue-neutral solution that would allow the toll barriers to be removed, meeting the long-term needs of those commuters," said Michael Marr, a spokesman for Gov. George E. Pataki.

The Pataki administration has been insisting for several years it could not legally take down the Niagara Thruway tolls, citing Thruway bond covenants that declared any reduction of tolls had to be revenue-neutral. About $14 million annually is collected at the barriers.

It is uncertain when the tolls will cease, as the sides are still trying to determine whether to come up with a temporary solution -- using the legislative pot to end the tolls for the next year -- or to devise a more lasting plan.

The discussions involve talks with representatives of Thruway bondholders whose investments are based on a commitment from the state that any reduction in tolls be revenue-neutral for the Thruway system, Volker said. Thruway officials have $50 million in the bank, Volker said, adding that other money has been found to make the toll barrier decision affordable.

The timing of the deal comes as members of the State Senate and Assembly go before voters Nov. 7.

"If the Senate majority were to spend $14 million of its discretionary funds, and make the transfer of those funds to the Thruway Authority or another appropriate entity, we, of course, would expect the Thruway Authority would immediately stop charging the tolls and keep that suspension of toll collection in effect for the one-year period covered by the $14 million," Marr said.

Marr stressed the tolls can't be forever removed "without a permanent, revenue-neutral solution, and we will continue to urge all parties to work towards that goal."

Republican John Faso and Democrat Eliot Spitzer, the two candidates running to replace Pataki, have said the tolls will not last. Spitzer, the front-runner, stood beside the Ogden barrier in the spring and declared he would end the tolls with "great speed" if he's elected.

The issue of how to bring down the barriers -- which local officials say are unfair because other commuter spurs of the Thruway are toll-free around the state -- has been brewing for years.

Legislation has been passed in the Assembly to take down the tolls; the Senate, though, did not approve the same bills, so the issue has died the past couple of years. The matter has prompted a lawsuit, petitions, resolutions by the Buffalo Common Council and County Legislature, soaring political rhetoric and threats from Rep. Brian Higgins to try to withhold federal funding for the Thruway Authority if the tolls were not ended.

The Thruway Authority, which has fought against ending the tolls at the two barriers, has proposed cutting the costs for regular commuters as part of a broader funding deal for the agency that the Legislature rejected this year.

Only recently, after Senate Republicans said they thought they had found a funding solution, did Thruway officials say that a solution may be near. Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, a Rensselaer County Republican, recently said there was enough money in Thruway reserves or the general fund to end the tolls.

If a quick resolution wasn't achieved, he said, the Senate would join with past Assembly efforts to take down the barriers. The vow was a switch for the Senate Republicans, who until recently had argued that the first priority for the Thruway operations in the region should be how to relocate the congested Williamsville barrier. Once that was resolved, they said, the Breckenridge and Ogden tolls could be studied.

Critics have said the tolls punish commuters but also hurt commerce in one of the most economically ailing regions of the state. Further, local officials have said taking down the Thruway barriers could help push drivers to use the Route 5-Skyway complex, opening up that area for waterfront redevelopment.

email e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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