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Upgrade set for disputed Williamsville toll barrier

The Williamsville toll barrier – despised by generations of residents and officials who fought to have it moved – will remain in place.

It could also become the toll plaza of the future, Thruway officials now say, part of a new statewide system where drivers breeze through at higher speeds than ever before.

Thruway officials are using that rationale to justify $14 million in planned improvements to the toll plaza – even while local leaders continue to scratch their heads.

“This is a joke,” Amherst Council Member Richard “Jay” Anderson said. “They’ve heard Williamsville and Amherst, and now they’re coming back, peeing on our leg and telling us it’s raining.”

Williamsville Mayor Brian J. Kulpa said improvements to the traffic-jammed toll barrier “can’t make the situation any worse.”

But he insists that in the long term, the Thruway Authority should remain open to the possibility of moving the barrier to another area.

“That’s got to be the long-term goal," Kulpa said. “We can’t persist with it where it is, unless it’s truly a high-speed format.”

The option of relocating the toll barrier – which officials have already spent $5 million studying – would help alleviate traffic on Main Street in the village, which is used as a cut-through to avoid the regular toll backups.

Thruway officials have planned to move the plaza as far back as the Gov. George E. Pataki administration – Clarence, Newstead and Pembroke were possible alternatives – but now appear ready to pour up to $15 million into the structure.

The investment would be made as part of a possible statewide all-electronic toll system in the years ahead that Thruway officials believe would alleviate congestion at the booth.

The new construction, which would start next year, could possibly include 35-mph E-ZPass toll lanes to cut down on traffic jams at the location.

The decision appears to be a bow not to spend far more money to move the plaza when the future of toll roads in the United States is increasingly toward electronic systems, such as all- E-ZPass or billed-at-home programs.

The new construction work will not include, officials said, a true high-speed toll area that allows vehicles to whisk under overhead electronic toll devices without having to slow down from highway speeds.

The Thruway system presently has only one such high-speed site at the Harriman exit downstate, though two more are being planned for other downstate locations at a new bridge to be constructed over the Hudson River and in Yonkers.

Exactly how the agency will spend $10 million to $15 million at the Williamsville toll site will be decided in the next several months after additional meetings with local officials.

“We have met with local officials on this, and we were pleased to have their input. We’re working on a final plan for the Williamsville toll barrier based on input from local officials,” said Thruway spokesman Daniel Weiller.

The agency will not specifically say why it is abandoning the toll barrier relocation effort, but Thruway officials have been under pressure to save money; the authority recently cut other capital expenditures and let go more than 200 unionized workers.

Kulpa said local leaders still haven’t received official word from the state on what changes will be made.

“It sounds like stuff that could help the current toll barrier, but I don’t know if it actually alleviates the massive volume that moving it does,” he said.

Anderson, meanwhile, was far more blunt.

“We’ve had loads of traffic problems. Now you’re going to do construction there?”

“Genius,” he quipped sarcastically. “I don’t see this as progress.”