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By David Staba

If you live in Niagara Falls, Buffalo or any of the surrounding towns and villages and occasionally venture more than a few miles from home, you know the drill.

Slow down as you approach the toll booth. More often than not, wait in line at the toll booth. Once you get there, give someone money -- usually 75 cents -- for the privilege of driving on a road that you have already paid to build and maintain.

Congratulations. You've just paid the Western New York Commuter Tax. As the name suggests, it's a unique gift-in-reverse bestowed on the region's residents by your good friends in Albany. No other urban area in upstate New York has a single toll booth not on an exit from the mainline Thruway, much less the four collection checkpoints dotting the I-190 in the region anchored by Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

The name, of course, is unofficial, as few officials of the New York State Thruway Authority would acknowledge gouging the peasantry inhabiting the state's most economically recessed region out of what little spare change they have.

In fact, when Shredd and Ragan of Buffalo radio station WEDG-FM encouraged motorists to protest last spring's 50-percent toll hike at Ogden Street and Black Rock toll barriers by paying in pennies, the unelected Lords of the Thruway huffed mightily at the suggestion they weren't entitled to vacuum quarters with impunity. And a Thruway worker who wouldn't give his name obscenely heckled protesters through a chain-link fence before climbing into a new SUV and driving off.

It may not seem like a lot of money, dribbling out a few coins at a time, but it adds up quickly. Someone commuting from Niagara Falls to Erie County, or the other way around, shells out $390 a year, based on five trips across Grand Island per week.

That's getting off easy. If your drive takes you into downtown Buffalo, you'll drop another $195 annually at the Black Rock barrier or lose hours per year out of your life by spending the extra time on city streets to avoid the levy.

And if you're commuting to or from the Southtowns and have to pay up at Ogden Street as well, your annual bill could be nearly $800. And that's not counting the Lackawanna exit from the mainline Thruway, should your daily drive take you that far.

That's as much or more than some people pay each year in property taxes. And only those of us in Western New York get to pay it. Not in Rochester, Syracuse, Utica or Binghamton. Just Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

"It's just an additional tax on the people who use the highway for commuter reasons to get to and from work and anyone else who enters the city of Buffalo," said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, who hosted a public hearing on the issue last week at the public library in downtown Buffalo.

Fourteen years ago, Hoyt announced his first campaign for the state Assembly near the Black Rock toll booth. This year, he again introduced two pieces of legislation -- one to eliminate the barriers that extort from drivers entering Buffalo from the north and south, and one to finally make the long-paid-for Grand Island bridges free.

Kathy Hochul, a member of the Hamburg Town Council whose full-time job as the deputy clerk of Erie County takes her to downtown Buffalo every day, has been campaigning to free the I-190 for a decade.

"People in Hamburg pay an extra $300 per year," Hochul said. "I'm just saying, treat us the same as the rest of the state."

Her boss, County Clerk David Swarts, has also been a vocal critic of the tolls. Both took part in last week's four-hour hearing, during which Thruway Authority lackeys tried and failed to explain why Western New Yorkers should pay the commuter tax. Because ... well, just because.

One spurious argument -- people can save hundreds of dollars a year by buying an EZ Pass, if they're willing to give the state their credit-card information and allow Albany to monitor their travels.

"A lot of people don't want to give the Thruway Authority the ability to track their comings and goings," Hochul said. "You're being punished if you don't buy into the system."

Another Authority argument holds that the tolls must be collected to pay off debt on the roadway. What they don't mention is that the debt could have been retired in the 1990s, but the Authority chose instead to borrow more money. Or that no tolls are collected on other roadways brought under the Thruway umbrella, like I-87 and I-287 downstate. Or that Rochester has three freeways running through various parts of the city, with the emphasis on "free."

The anti-toll campaign got a jolt last week when Erie County Executive Joel Giambra and developer Carl Paladino filed suit against the state to remove the two barriers in Buffalo, arguing that a 1968 state law mandated such a move when the federal government reimbursed the cost of their construction.

That didn't happen until more than 20 years later, by which time the Authority had managed to incur millions in new debt.

We've been more than a little critical of both men on these pages in the past, but Citycide believes strongly in giving credit where and when due. While it's a political no-brainer for Giambra, who remains roughly as popular in Erie County as the toll booths he's suing to have demolished, it is nice to see Paladino suing over something that would do more good for the community than for him personally.

Unlike, say, his last major lawsuit, in which he succeeded in preventing the Seneca Nation from building a casino in Cheektowaga, instead forcing them to build on land it would have to purchase from him.

Paladino, and everyone else in the region -- with the possible exception of people employed at the toll booths -- would benefit from banishing this egregiously unfair form of taxation.

Hoyt said the lawsuit and the coverage afforded the hearing could help push two bills he's introduced out of committee, where similar legislation languished and died in the past. The new state senator representing Niagara Falls and part of Buffalo, Marc Coppola, announced Sunday that he will introduce similar bills in that legislative body.

Another boost could come from state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, should the presumptive Democratic nominee to succeed Gov. George Pataki latch onto the issue in order to solidify his support in the area.

"From a policy standpoint and a political standpoint, there is no issue with such universal consistent support as removing these tolls," Hoyt said. "Casino gambling -- you've got opponents and proponents. Bass Pro -- some people think it's a great idea, some people think it's a stupid idea. Removing the tolls -- it's a win-win."

Speaking of quarters, Citycide offers this two-step, sure-fire way to avoid the much-hyped parking-ticket blitz in Buffalo.

  1. Park in a legal space or lot.
  2. If you park at a meter, figure out how long you're going to be and drop in the appropriate amount of change. Most meters have an easy-to-read chart to help with the math. And if you're not sure, drop in an extra quarter.

Listening to blowhard radio hosts work themselves into a frenzy over the zero-tolerance campaign by cops unhappy with their frozen wages was more comical than the occasions when they actually try to be funny.

One spent an entire morning vowing never to go to dinner or a show or anything else in the city, apparently because he can't park wherever he wants for free. That's like saying you won't go to the corner store unless they're going to let you steal something.

And speaking of the governor's race, Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi campaigned in Buffalo and Niagara Falls last week.

He walked through the Broadway Market accompanied by former Buffalo mayor Jimmy Griffin. The appearance was a stark contrast to Spitzer's campaign kickoff in Cheektowaga last month, when seemingly every Democratic elected official in Western New York crammed behind the podium at the Hearthstone Manor like clowns in a tiny car (with the notable exception of the mayor of Niagara Falls, whose invitation was probably lost in the mail).

But while Suozzi wears his lack of support from party leaders like a badge, he showed a fair amount of political savvy by choosing Griffin as a surrogate at this end of the state.

"The only people endorsing me are my mother, and now Mayor Griffin," Suozzi said while talking with reporters after walking through the East Side landmark.

Griffin remains popular more than 12 years after leaving office. At least a half-dozen patrons called out or greeted him as "Mayor Six-Pack," a reference to his advice to Buffalo residents during the Blizzard of '85: "Stay inside, grab a six-pack and watch a good football game."

Suozzi also uttered what could be the line of the campaign, though you're probably not going to read or hear it anywhere but here. After buying a pound of Polish sausage at a butcher's counter, he handed the bag to an aide before turning to address the media.

"Here," Suozzi said. "Hold my kielbasa."

Good to see that local politicos are thinking sensibly when it comes to spending millions in Greenway money, well before a settlement with the New York State Power Authority is even finalized.

Because if there's one thing Niagara County really, really needs, it's a $36 million recreation center in Lewiston-Porter.

It's also reassuring to see that fully one-third of the proposed $9 million annual payment would go to the Niagara Power Coalition to dole out as it sees fit.

The more unaccountable quasi-public organizations distributing cash the better, right?

Plus, you can expect about a third of that to go for "administrative costs." Hey, political flunkies have to work, too.

And while it was generous to offer to build an arena on Seneca Nation land (and Niagara Falls genuinely needs an arena that could hold 5,000-7,000 people to handle events like concerts and boxing promotions that dovetail nicely with most casinos throughout the country), isn't that the sort of thing the casino corporation should pay for itself?

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 7 2006