Group says toll increases partly to blame for off-route truck traffic in New York

| 4/28/2006

It’s no secret that raising tolls is a good way to drive trucks and four-wheelers onto alternate routes.

In some areas, the state and U.S. highways surrounding a toll road begin to see an increase in truck traffic on roads that aren’t designed to the same standards as most interstates and toll roads. And that increased traffic can mean possible safety issues and premature maintenance problems.

A number of states, including Ohio, Delaware and Illinois, added extra law enforcement to their side roads after toll rate increases in an effort to divert trucks back to the toll roads. Officials in Ohio even went so far as to reduce rates and offer incentives to help lure trucks back onto their Tollway.

Now, those same problems are starting to materialize in upstate New York.

When the New York State Thruway Authority raised tolls in May 2005, trucks were hit the hardest. While four-wheeler’ rates went up by about 25 percent, commercial vehicles went up by a minimum of 35 percent – and that’s with E-ZPass and a high-volume discount. For some truckers, the toll rate increased more than 300 percent.

Now, almost a year later, residents in communities near the toll road have started to take notice of extra truck traffic in their communities – and they’re not happy about it. A group known as the Upstate New York Safety Coalition Task Force is pressuring lawmakers to introduce legislation that will keep trucks on the Thruway and off state routes 38, 38A, 41, 41A and 90.

Task Force President Barbara Clary said her group was actually formed several years ago to protest trash trucks traveling on State Route 20 to the Seneca Meadows landfill in Waterloo, NY. However, she said it has grown as the trash haulers have spread throughout the region as they try to dodge the Thruway’s tolls.

“We’re looking at more of a regional committee now,” Clary said. “We’ve expanded to the towns all around us, who are also experiencing very heavy truck traffic.”

Clary said her group is not opposed to trucking, but rather the routes the trash trucks are choosing.

“They’re running right through the heart of many of our towns,” she said. “It’s become a safety issue – school buses are stopping, there’s people walking and jogging along the roads … just all kinds of experiences that could turn into tragedies.”

Clary said there have been a few wrecks involving the trucks, but luckily, no one has been injured. The increase in truck traffic even has the town’s folks concerned about pollution of the area’s water supply. The nearby Finger Lakes – some of which run next to the roadways in question – provide water for much of the region, including city of Syracuse.

“We have to say that we want to do something before it gets even worse,” she said. “We don’t have anything here that protects our lakes.”

George Farenthold, a trustee for the village of Aurora, NY, and a member of the task force, said he’s also seen problems developing with his town’s infrastructure.

“We have three bridges in town, and two of the three are now scheduled for repair,” Farenthold said. “That’s going to be a gross inconvenience to our village, as well as a huge expense to the state. Of course, that’s just another corollary as part of the increase in the truck traffic.”

But more importantly, he said, is the safety of Aurora’s residents.

“As a 25-year EMT and a volunteer fire fighter, I’m scared to death,” he said. “Here we’ve got these trucks coming in at highway speeds, coming into this very small village with an even smaller-than-normal highway coming into it, which is our main street.”

Last year, the task force volunteers counted the number of trucks that passed through their communities. Clary said she couldn’t tie the increase in truck traffic directly to the higher tolls, since her group didn’t conduct another study after the increase. However, she said it has probably had a significant influence.

Clary said the landfill itself has been somewhat cooperative, and sent a letter to its trucking companies asking them to utilize other routes. However, she has had no communication with the companies themselves.

Calls by Land Line to three trash-hauling companies that deliver to Seneca Meadows – Riccelli Trucking, Sunshine Trucking and Santaro Trucking – were not returned.

The next move for the task force, Clary said, is to pursue action in the state legislature. There are two bills currently in the state’s assembly – A6494, which would establish specific routes for hazmat loads, and A3871, which would ban trucks from state routes 41 and 41A. Although both have stalled in committee, Clary said they are asking for the measures to be reintroduced this summer.

“We’re getting more support from our representatives,” she said. “I think the legislative effort has increased greatly, and that’s where we really think we’ll be effective.”

Sarah Kampf, a spokeswoman for the Thruway Authority, said a change in how truck tolls were figured has made it difficult to pinpoint differences in truck traffic before and after the toll increase, but that the traffic seems to be about the same.

“We don’t have any indication that a diversion of commercial traffic off of our system has happened due to the toll adjustment,” Kampf said.

As for the possibility of petitioning the Thruway to reduce its truck tolls, Clary said it was not an avenue her group was planning to pursue. OOIDA Executive Todd Spencer, however, said putting pressure on the Thruway Authority should be one of the task force’s main focuses.

“In all their outrage, they still don’t realize that the increase in truck traffic could be eased not by banning all trucks, but by simply reducing the toll rates on the Thruway,” Spencer said. “These people need to put the heat on those who can make that happen.”

Spencer pointed out that getting off the toll road and taking a longer, less safe route isn’t a trucker’s first choice. But when the toll rate goes up more than 300 percent, they don’t have much of an alternative.

– By Aaron Ladage, staff writer