Thruway Toll Fight Portrayed As Argument Over Canal System Funding by Pete Bardunias

The proposed 45% toll increase on three axle trucks using the New York State Thruway has rankled business people from the Bronx to Buffalo. Fears run high that the extra costs will be passed on to consumers and hamper our state’s competitiveness in the regional marketplace. In the search for scapegoats, special interest groups and the media have settled on the money that goes from the Thruway Authority to the New York State Canal Corporation as being the reason for everyone’s troubles. Public hearings were held, but several upstate Assemblymen held a hearing in Albany to protest the lack of such a session in the capital region. Comments were made that the canal should be funded elsewhere, but it was the coverage of the Albany hearing that was particularly onerous. The most quoted individual, Andy Clemente of Bonded Concrete, claimed that “It’s not fair that they pay for a waterway for multimillionaires to traverse the state – Europeans that want to come here and traverse with their yachts. It’s not fair. There should either be a higher toll or in my opinion, maybe we shouldn’t have a canal.” On Wednesday, September 5, Senator Patrick M. Gallivan (R-Elma), Chairman of the Senate’s Commerce, Economic Development, and Small Business Committee, joined two other colleagues in announcing legislation that would, if enacted, sever the New York State Canal System from the Thruway Authority. “The Canal System is a historical treasure, and a major economic development tool and recreational tourist attraction for many communities that dot its course,” said Senator Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo). “But at a time when the Thruway Authority is seriously considering hiking tolls for the fifth time in seven years, I believe the administrative and cost responsibility of the canal system should shift to a state agency that has more experience in efficiently managing the state’s diverse array of physical infrastructure.”

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The bill proposes to put the Canal system under the state Department of Transportation, thereby subjecting its cost and operation to legislative oversight  through the annual state budget process. It truly bothers this writer that the waterways would be considered a problem. For one thing, issues at the Thruway Authority likely are systematic, not confined to any one department. Secondly, people drive on the Thruway and pay tolls to visit our canalside towns, thus contributing to the revenue generated by the highway. Now the control and operation of the canal system seems to have become a political football destined to satisfy no one, perhaps least of all the boaters who come to upstate New York to enjoy the waterway and spend their hard earned dollars to do so. There are sensible minds on both sides of this discussion,  but they seem to have been drowned out in the canal hysteria. For example, Kendra Adams, President of the New York State Motor Truck Association, a Mechanicville native, strongly believes that the toll hike, if implemented, will decimate the trucking industry in New York State. Ms. Adams challenged some of the Thruway Authority’s assertions. She highlighted the relatively small amount of user fees the canal collects and said that it places an undue burden on others to subsidize. My retort was that canalside commerce also brings some $400 million of revenue into nearby communities, the loss of which would hurt the trucking industry by reducing the amount of goods shipped to these towns on the Thruway. We both recognized the need to find a way to reconcile these seemingly diverse interests, especially in places like the Capital District where multiple modes of transportation come together to serve the needs of commerce via rail, highway, and waterways. Where do you, as a boater and businessperson, stand on this issue? In southern Saratoga County we represent diverse interests, and the canal funding argument threatens to drive a wedge between segments of our business community. Hurricanes Irene and Lee tried but couldn’t destroy the canal system. Will bureaucratic pressure finish the job? We need all the help we can get to navigate increasingly treacherous waters, so please send me your thoughts, comments, and ideas to pete@southernsaratoga.org.

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