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State can't tackle key Thruway projects Moving of toll barrier in Williamsville put off

The state Thruway Authority does not have enough money to complete several high-profile improvements along its 570-mile system, including major projects in Western New York that were part of the agency's public relations effort to garner support for a toll hike.

Among the projects being removed from an ambitious $2.1 billion capital program is the relocation of the congested Williamsville toll barrier and its promised highway speed toll collection system for E-ZPass holders at a new barrier 11 miles to the east.

Also gone are a plan to widen a three-mile stretch of the Thruway to four lanes from West Seneca to Lackawanna, and several bridge and highway refurbishments throughout the region.

In all, about $430 million in various planned projects statewide are being pushed out past the life of the current capital program, which expires at the end of 2011, according to documents obtained Wednesday by The Buffalo News. Officials say they hope the improvements can be made after 2011, but they could make no promises.

The scaling back of road improvements from the current capital program -- approved in 2004 when Thruway officials also pushed through an unpopular rate hike -- is blamed on skyrocketing road construction costs, driven by high demand in China for
steel and concrete and rising asphalt costs due to higher-than-projected oil prices.

"These are difficult decisions. We'd like to be in a position to deliver these projects, but circumstances beyond our control force us to make difficult decisions," said Michael Fleischer, the Thruway's executive director.

Two of the three biggest cutbacks will be felt in Buffalo-area projects: the $77 million Williamsville relocation and a $78 million effort to add a fourth lane in both directions, along with bridge replacements, in the stretch between West Seneca and Lackawanna.

The Williamsville project, pushed by local officials for 25 years, was to have been completed by 2010, and involved moving the barrier to Newstead and installing a new system permitting E-ZPass customers to drive under a toll-reading machine at highway speeds.

The idea was unveiled with much publicity in 2006 as a way to reduce congestion and improve safety near the spot where the busy Thruway and Youngmann Highway merge.

"It's disappointing. There's a lot of reasons we felt that was a very viable project that needed to be done," said Wally Smith, a spokesman for AAA Western and Central New York. He noted transportation agencies across the nation are being squeezed by construction inflation.

Three other highway speed projects in the eastern and downstate regions also are being punted, although a Rockland County high-speed zone is going ahead.

For safety reasons, work on the Tappan Zee Bridge between Westchester and Rockland counties will continue -- despite word last week that the span is going to be replaced for $16 billion.

The retrenchment comes as a draft study prepared for the authority recommends a whole new way of collecting tolls in the future, such as tearing down more than three dozen toll booths and replacing them with far fewer toll barriers in non-urban areas.

The report also promotes the possibilities -- and pitfalls -- of ending cash tolls and requiring users to either have an E-ZPass account or to register their license plates in advance to be able to use the road; such a system would replace toll booths, and their workers, with overhead gantries to read E-ZPass accounts or photograph plates. Under two models, tolls would end in urban areas as a way to curtail congestion.

But the plan has no funding source, though it comes as the Paterson administration is studying whether to lease public assets like the Thruway to private entities.

Officials cautioned the report is meant as a long-term planning tool for upgrading the highway by improving how tolls are collected.

On the delaying of Thruway improvements, officials Wednesday said the originally proposed $2.1 billion -- the actual total was $2.7 when new equipment and other costs were included -- will still be spent on road and bridge repairs.

But, with less buying power because of inflation, dozens of projects are either being shelved or reduced in scope. For example, the original plan called for rehabilitation of a 13-mile stretch between Hamburg and Angola; now, just 6.3 miles will be done.

Also being shelved is rehabilitation of a bridge over Silver Creek, noise barriers near the Lackawanna toll barrier, and improvements of the road where it crosses the Seneca Nation.

Word of the cutbacks comes as toll revenues have dropped 4.6 percent from projections -- a loss of nearly $30 million from the $600 million projected. The fall has been blamed in large part on reduced driving because of high fuel prices. Officials say the toll drop-off is affecting operating costs, not the capital program.

Fleischer said $200 million in projects are still planned in the Buffalo area over the next three years, such as work on the Grand Island bridges.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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On the back burner

Thruway improvements postponed or downsized

*Relocation of Williamsville toll barrier 11 miles to the east

*State-of-the-art highway speed toll zone at Newstead

*Fourth lane from West Seneca to Lackawanna

*Ripley toll barrier reconstruction

*Rehabilitation of seven miles between Hamburg and Angola

*Various bridge improvements throughout region

Source: State Thruway Authority

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