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Sparks fly at hearing on tolls

Sparks fly at hearing on tolls

Assemblyman David Gantt, D-Rochester, chairman of the Transportation Committee, clashed Tuesday with

Assemblyman David Gantt, D-Rochester, chairman of the Transportation Committee, clashed Tuesday with leaders of the Thruway Authority at a public hearing on proposed toll increases.

Gantt criticized the nonappearance of authority Chairman John Buono, and said he may compel his appearance at a future date by issuing a subpoena. Michael Fleischer, executive director of the authority, said Buono was out of state and the Assembly had only informed the Authority about the hearing last Thursday evening.

Buono wrote to Gantt on Monday saying he was unable to rearrange his schedule to attend the hearing. He is in Florida on personal business, according to an authority spokeswoman.

Gantt noted that he and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, have called for the resignation of all authority board members so that Gov. Eliot Spitzer can appoint new ones. The current members were appointed by then-Gov. George Pataki, a Republican. Spitzer is a Democrat.

“I do not believe I should resign,” responded board member Kevin Plunkett, saying board members should exercise their judgment independent of politics.

Another board member, Frederick Howard, read a statement from Buono responding to audits of the authority completed recently by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. The statement said key issues raised by the audits, including levels of federal aid and the authority’s responsibility for the state Canal Corp., are not within the board’s control. Buono’s statement also said the audits confirm that a toll increase is needed, but said “the toll adjustment, as currently proposed, may be modified” in light of the comptroller’s recommendations.

DiNapoli also testified, and said the authority needs to take various steps before resorting to toll increases, including collection of debts owed by E-Z Pass customers.

Gantt said he had not decided where the Canal Corp. belonged, and whether the authority should keep responsibility for it. Authority leaders, including Buono, have said they would like to see the Canal Corp. separated, and DiNapoli said the same thing, suggesting it might be taken over by the federal government or leased to a private company.

Several witnesses at the hearing, including representatives of Dairy Marketing Services and AAA, endorsed the idea of separating the Canal Corp., saying that Thruway drivers should not have to subsidize it.

But Richard Powell, of Waterford-based Erie-Champlain Canal Boat Co., dissented. He said he was concerned that the canal system would be underfunded if it had to rely on the state’s general fund.

Assemblyman Jack McEneny, D-Albany, said the Canal Corp. would likely fit better into the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation than the Thruway Authority, which has controlled it since 1992.

Assemblyman Tim Gordon of Bethlehem, an Independence Party member who aligns himself with the Democrats, raised the issue of board member travel, citing the comptroller’s findings that a board member was reimbursed for air fare from Arizona to attend one board meeting, and to Florida after another one. That board member also was reimbursed for a plane trip when he actually took the train at lower cost, and was paid more than the maximum allowable amount for Albany hotel expenses, according to the one of the comptroller’s audits, which included a response from the authority.

Authority spokeswoman Kimberly Chupa said that member, John Reidman, served until December 2006 and is no longer on the board. After an internal review, he paid back some money and the authority tightened reimbursement procedures. The comptroller found “an additional $2,252 in excess hotel and air fare reimbursements paid to the board member” that should be recovered, but the authority disputed this finding.

Authority board members are not paid. Asked about this after the hearing, Gordon said they should not have the attitude of “get it where they can,” and should not be provided with “a free trip to a sunny destination.”

DiNapoli said the authority is underestimating potential federal aid, projecting less than it has received in the past. Fleischer said the past allocation was based on an agreement with the state Department of Transportation that expired in 2005, and that DOT has its own urgent infrastructure needs and may not be willing to renew the agreement on terms as generous to the authority.

Fleischer said the authority is taking steps to collect money owed by some E-Z Pass customers and is willing to prioritize capital projects, perhaps postponing nonessential ones involving trails and noise barriers.

He disputed DiNapoli’s claim that the authority resorts to toll increases as a first resort, saying it has cut 450 jobs in recent years and plans to cut 50 more.

The authority’s most recent toll hike, 10 percent for cash customers, went into effect this month, as the second and final phase of a 2005 toll increase. It has announced tentative plans for further increases starting this July, but a bipartisan chorus of state leaders has come out in opposition.

However, Steve Stallmer, executive director of Associated General Contractors of New York State, said the authority’s capital program is necessary to stop infrastructure from deteriorating, and that costs of construction materials such as concrete and asphalt have greatly increased in price.

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