Rep. Brian Higgins is calling for an audit of the state Thruway Authority, saying the authority should open its books and allow the public to see how tolls are spent.
The request for an audit by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli follows the approval Thursday by the Thruway Authority's Fiscal Committee of toll increases of 5 percent in 2009 and 2010. This follows an already approved 10 percent increase to take effect in January.
Higgins said that he sent a Freedom of Information Law request to the Thruway Authority in September seeking financial information about its operations but that the request remains unacknowledged.
"If this authority, charged with serving the public, has nothing to hide, then they need to open their books and allow the public to see where our tolls are going," said Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat.
"This new proposal to increase tolls, combined with the toll increase a year and half ago, would mean a 45 percent increase in just five years. If expenses are growing at this astonishing rate, we need better oversight."
Higgins also said the Thruway Authority failed to fulfill many promised infrastructure investments in the Buffalo area the last time it raised tolls.
"If the toll money isn't going into the local projects the authority committed to, what exactly are local toll-payers paying for?" he asked.
In his letter to DiNapoli, Higgins questioned an assortment of Thruway Authority expenses, such as $4.6 million on waterfront development projects, $6.5 million for the Westchester Ferry, $19.2 million for Syracuse's inner harbor and $5 million for a Syracuse bus station.
Authority officials could not be reached to comment. But in an article about the tolls in The Buffalo News on Sunday, Michael R. Fleischer, the authority's executive director, defended the toll increase.
Tolls for the Thruway remain in the middle of the pack compared with those of other states, he said, and are less than those in Pennsylvania. In addition, he said, tolls went up in 1988 and remained unchanged until 2005.
Fleischer also defended a plan to spend a record $2.7 billion on capital improvements, despite a recent assessment by consultants that the system is in good shape. Fleischer insisted that all of the of work is necessary and that, if delayed, would only get more costly.