If New York State Thruway Authority officials were planning to stick to their story of not being able to afford to close tollbooths on Interstate 190 in downtown Buffalo, an unexpected $5 million windfall certainly isn’t going to help their case.
On Thursday, May 4, Thruway officials announced that last year’s toll increase had generated $5 million more in revenue than had been previously expected.
The announcement arrives just weeks after officials said the two Buffalo tolls – which account for about 1 percent of the Thruway’s total annual revenue – were an integral part of the Thruway’s budget. Combined with this additional $5 million income, that reduces the Buffalo tolls’ contribution to about one-half of 1 percent of the annual budget.
“The fact that (the) Thruway Authority has said they can’t afford to remove the tolls on the I-190 … seems even more preposterous after their admission this morning,” U.S. Representative Brian Higgins, D-NY, said in a statement.
Higgins told Land Line he will introduce a bill in the House later this summer that would withhold federal highway funding from the Thruway if the South Ogden and Breckenridge tollbooths on I-190 are not taken down.
Higgins, a Buffalo native and member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the tolls force truck traffic and local commuters in the city to pay for the all 641 miles of the Thruway’s upkeep.
“We’re basing our request to the New York State Thruway Authority on an issue of fairness and equity,” Higgins told Land Line. “There are 25 highways in upstate New York linking urban and suburban communities with the Thruway, but there’s only one toll road, that being the I-190 running through Buffalo.”
According to Thruway figures, approximately $250 million of the Authority’s $914 million annual budget comes from Federal Highway Administration funds. About 1 percent of the 641-mile Thruway’s yearly revenue – roughly $9.6 million – comes from the Buffalo tollbooths. Approximately $75 million of the Thruway’s budget is used to fund the state’s canal system, including the Erie Canal.
“It’s one thing if the tolls are put in place to finance construction or reconstruction,” he said. “Our argument is the Thruway Authority is receiving a lot of federal highway money to accomplish that. Therefore, the tolls – the toll tax – represent a double tax on commuters from Buffalo and western New York.”
Higgins said the Buffalo tolls have also caused traffic to use nearby non-toll roads, which has made it difficult for the city to plan and maintain its infrastructure.
“There’s a huge avoidance issue, which is undermining efforts to redevelop the city of Buffalo and its urban areas,” he said. “If you have tolls imposed, and there are alternative transportation routes – whether those routes were built up as a major transportation route or not – people will go to where there are no tolls imposed.”
The lawmaker is not the only Buffalo native who’s at odds with the Thruway.
In February, Erie County Executive Joel Giambra and Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino banded together in a lawsuit against the Thruway Authority, alleging that the I-190 tollbooths have stunted economic growth in downtown Buffalo. As of press time, there had been no decision in that case.
Originally, tolls on the road were to end in 1996, after the original bonds that funded the project were paid off. However, Thruway officials later changed that and said users of the road, not all of the state’s taxpayers, should pay for its upkeep.
– By Aaron Ladage, staff writer