NEWS

Opponents want to put the brakes on tolls hike

Bryan Roth

Despite the threat of Thruway tolls increasing 10 percent next year and even more in the years after that, local residents, business owners and politicians are telling themselves that it’s not over ‘till it’s over.

 While they wait for the state Thruway Authority to formally pass an increase in tolls, some people are trying to make their voices heard so the Authority knows how upset they are with the potential of paying more when they travel.

This morning, Republican members of the state Assembly held a public hearing in Rochester as part of a series of meetings held around the state to let residents know their voice will be heard. More than 20 people attended the hearing at the Monroe County Office Building, after meetings in Albany, Buffalo and Syracuse last week.

“This is a grassroots outcry from people ... and it’s not a done deal until it’s a done deal,” said Assemblyman Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua. “Hopefully public pressure will have a result.”

In addition to providing the Authority with comments from the public, Assembly’s minority Republicans are expected to introduce legislation that would remove the money-losing state Canal Corp. from the Thruway Authority’s control. Some opponents to the proposed toll increase say that, if such a measure were to pass, the toll hikes probably wouldn’t be needed.

Even still, the Thruway Authority’s Finance Committee moved forward to approve increases that would raise about $90 million over the next three years. Originally, Authority officials said the Thruway was supposed to be toll-free by 1996. Among the new changes are:

• Increase toll prices by 10 percent.

• Decrease the discount given to E-ZPass users from 10 percent to 5 percent in June 2008.

• Increase tolls by 5 percent in 2009 and 2010.

Those changes have worried local residents who say that increases aren’t needed.

Fairport resident Joanne Strong said that, while the current price of tolls feel right at this time, the increases won’t just upset her, they’ll make her think twice before making any long trips.

“Instead of taking the Thruway, I’ve been taking state routes,” she said. “I think it’s going to affect a lot of travelers.”

Strong currently serves as the secretary for the Van Owners Informational Council Empire State, a van enthusiast group, and said that before the announcement of the toll increase, the organization planned on having a national event in New York in 2010.

But, Strong said she believes that with toll increases, it might make it hard to convince members from around the Northeast to travel to the Rochester area.

 Combined with higher gas prices and higher prices for things like food at rest stops along the Thruway, Strong said all of the increases have created a perfect storm that may keep people away from New York.

“The Thruway Authority says they’re doing this because there’s no traffic on the Thruway,” Strong said. “Well, now there’s going to be even less.”

Increasing Thruway tolls won’t make only regular travelers feel the pinch in their pocket. Business owners say the increase will affect them the most.

 John Rynne, owner and president of Rochester’s Rynne, Murphy & Associates, Inc., a real estate and appraisal consulting company, said that his employees travel all around the state on a regular basis and increasing the tolls will only mark up the cost of not only doing business for him, but could potentially make young entrepreneurs think twice before coming to New York.

“When I grew up in the 1950s, I remember the Empire State when it was the greatest state,” he said, adding that New York is known for its economic and population growth due to business opportunities. “Right now, Upstate New York is not part of the Empire State.”

Assemblyman Joe Errigo, R-Conesus, sees a similar problem. He said that if tolls are increased it could create a double-edged sword for residents. If companies that use the Thruway for travel increase their prices to customers to make up for the toll increase, state residents will just be paying twice as much for goods and services in addition to their own travel.

“We’re talking about the high cost of gasoline and if you add on higher tolls ... it doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.

AAA Western and Central New York public affairs manager Diana Dibble said the biggest problem facing drivers is the fact that the toll increase is helping to fund the state’s canal system, which she believes should be independent. By alleviating that cost from the Thruway Authority, Dibble said that tolls wouldn’t have to be increased.

Dibble added that drivers may start rethinking their routes in the wake of a toll increase, which would just create a downward spiral of less traffic on the Thruway, meaning tolls might have to get increased even more in the following years. But, until the Thruway Authority gives the final word, Dibble said she plans on trying to prevent any changes.

“Motorists (understand) it’s really not fair,” she said. “But the process is not over yet.”

Bryan Roth can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 270, or at broth@mpnewspapers.com.