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WNY legislators betrayed constituents by refusing to back Thruway toll relief

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo devised a creative way of bringing some measure of toll relief to people who rely on the Thruway for business and personal travel. Unfortunately, looking for all the world like sheep meekly following their leader, legislators in both the Senate and Assembly rejected the proposal.

Members of the Western New York delegation failed to do their job on this matter, and should be made to answer to their constituents. Explain to them what is so bad about the governor’s proposal to use $1 billion of lawsuit settlement funds to keep Thruway tolls stable at least until 2020 and to cut the toll expenses in half for some frequent users. While Assembly Democrats did go along with a proposal to provide toll relief for upstate’s critical agriculture industry, that hardly makes up for refusing to extend that package to other drivers.

Cuomo’s $145 billion budget proposal included the toll freeze and tax credits for many drivers. The undeserved pushback to his plan is perplexing.

The Thruway Authority raises the possibility of a toll increase nearly every year. Cuomo’s toll freeze would benefit every driver on the tolled sections for the rest of the decade. The governor said the tax credit would benefit 911,743 drivers who use E-ZPass and pay at least $50 in annual tolls, with an average annual savings of $97. It also would benefit businesses and commercial vehicle owners using E-ZPass and paying between $100 and $9,999 in annual tolls, according to the governor. Farmers would have their tolls eliminated through a 100 percent credit.

The budget bills passed by the Republican-led Senate and Democratic-led Assembly rejected the toll freeze and most of the toll credit proposal. What gives?

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie claims that the effort to hurt Thruway users is not a matter of downstaters taking aim at an upstate benefit. And he might be right about that. A Feb. 11 letter to Heastie and Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell Jr., chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and signed by 18 upstate legislators, including Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, and Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, set their priorities on transportation-related items during this year’s budget negotiations.

Those members called for a rejection of the $340 million Cuomo earmarked for Thruway toll tax credits, except those for agricultural uses. Assembly members claim they want to use that money to hold down tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools.

The toll relief for Thruway motorists could still reappear. After all, this is New York State, where furious deal-making precedes adoption of the budget. Upstate legislators have less than two weeks – the budget is due April 1 – to push for an issue that is important for motorists.

The Thruway is a crucial component of upstate transportation. It is also critical to economic development. The tolls were supposed to end decades ago, but have not only remained in place but increased substantially, in part to fund other programs.

Cuomo finally devised a plan to ease this drag on upstate, only to see upstate legislators themselves develop a tin ear to the proposals. That certainly earns them points with the legislative leadership, but should be of great concern to their constituents.

It is only natural for the governor and legislators to have differing budget priorities. But the need for toll relief is clear.

Ryan, Schimminger and the rest of Western New York’s senators and Assembly members have to get behind the governor on this point, or be prepared to pay the price come November.