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High tolls hit everybody -- except agency's employees

Motorists and truckers traveling the Thruway are expected to pay an extra $27 million in tolls this coming year because of a rate increase that takes effect in January. And the state Thruway Authority is considering further hikes of up to 20 percent beyond next year.

But there's one group of people who don't have to worry about the increases: the authority commissioners who set toll rates and some 3,000 employees who work for them.

That's because they don't pay Thruway tolls.

By virtue of authority policy and labor contracts, most commissioners, employees and retirees drive the Thruway free. It doesn't matter if the driving is for business or personal reasons.

That contrasts with five other states that have major toll roads. Employees pay tolls when traveling for personal purposes in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Illinois.

In New York, however, five commissioners and 2,528 employees have unrestricted E-ZPasses, allowing for any and all Thruway travel. An additional 391 have passes that allow them to commute to and from work without paying tolls.

Full-time authority employees earned, on average, $55,336 in 2006.

The freebies don't end with authority workers.

There are 413 employees of an authority subsidiary that operates the state canal system who also get passes for unrestricted Thruway travel.

As do 174 state troopers who patrol the Thruway.

And 1,078 retirees of the authority, canal corporation and State Police enjoy lifetime passes, including retired board members.

Add it all up, and 4,198 employees and retirees get to ride the Thruway free.

The policy doesn't sit well with many motorists who pay tolls.

"That's wrong. They should share the burden," said Timothy Gnacinski, a Cheektowaga resident in the health care compliance field.

Meredith Conner, an attorney from Buffalo, agreed.

"How can you be in charge of setting tolls you're not going to pay?" she asked. "It's hypocrisy."

"I can understand the perception," said Michael Fleischer, the authority's executive director.

Fleischer, who has opted not to accept a pass for personal use, noted that board members are not compensated for their service.

"They put in a lot of time and effort," Fleischer said. "They do not take lightly the impact of tolls on the people who use the system."

As for employees, Fleischer said most passes are the product of contract negotiations.

Those holding the passes made 1.78 million free trips in 2006. They accounted for a little less than 1 percent of total Thruway traffic.

Thruway Authority officials, responding to a Buffalo News request under the state Freedom of Information Law, said they were unable to place a value on the trips or to differentiate between those made for business and trips for personal purposes.

The authority began granting passes for free travel in 1964. The passes are now included in contracts with the authority's white- and blue-collar unions and extended to management.

Full-time employees hired before Oct. 20, 2005, get an unlimited pass after four years on the job. Those hired after that date get it after five years. Part-timers are not eligible.

Full- and part-timers with 20 years on the job and represented by a union get a lifetime pass upon retirement. Employees who leave the authority for another job can also get the lifetime pass upon retirement provided they worked at least 20 years with the authority.

Five of the authority's seven commissioner's have passes: Erin Crotty, Jeff Williams, Fred Howard, Kevin Plunkett and Virgil Conway. Nancy Carey Cassidy and Chairman John Buono have opted not to take passes.

Is there a problem with board members not paying tolls like everyone else, given that they set rates?

"You're asking me a question I never even thought about," said Williams, a Lewiston resident who represents Western New York on the authority board.

In addition to his free pass, which he termed "kind of nice," Williams said five of his family members pay for E-ZPass. In that context, Williams said, his free pass "seems pretty inconsequential."


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