Rep. Brian Higgins has lodged the most tangible threat yet against Niagara Thruway tolls by warning Gov. George E. Pataki on Monday that without immediate action to abolish them, he would introduce legislation to withhold the road's federal transportation money.
County Clerk David J. Swarts and County Legislator Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo, joined Higgins, D-Buffalo, outside Higgins' Buffalo office, where the congressman announced he had asked Pataki to remove tolls he described as "illegal, immoral and inequitable."
Since 1976, Higgins noted, the Niagara Thruway has received $194 million in federal aid.
He said the threat of such legislation, along with growing support from the public and private sectors, adds to the "convergence" of community sentiment against the tolls.
"The Thruway Authority, in its arrogance, has created an opportunity for us to exploit this," Higgins said.
His announcement, which followed pronouncements by Swarts and such other officials as County Executive Joel A. Giambra, is the latest in a series of revolts against the Breckenridge and Ogden Street toll barriers.
The tolls, Higgins said, amount to double taxation on Western New Yorkers, since drivers in other major upstate cities travel toll-free on their major commuter routes.
Higgins joins the fray fresh from a successful battle against the New York Power Authority over a relicensing agreement that will pump $279 million into the Buffalo waterfront over the next half-century. He noted his disdain for state authorities, which he sees as answerable only to the governor, but said Pataki could rectify the situation.
"A political solution is required here," Higgins said. "The governor not only influences public authorities in this state; the governor controls them."
For years, Swarts and his deputy, Kathleen C. Hochul, a Hamburg councilwoman who joined him Monday, have pressed for removing the tolls.
Swarts described himself as heartened by Higgins' direct involvement in the effort, saying he believes that the issue must be pursued from every level of the community.
"This is an indication, clearly, that Brian Higgins gets it," Swarts said. "Brian has zeroed in on the most influential person in this -- the governor."
Swarts said Thruway proceeds now fund projects ranging from the Erie Canal to port redevelopment in Rochester.
He also called on Pataki to act.
"The public has to continue to send a message to the governor," Swarts said.
Higgins said he was confident he could obtain federal legislation to withhold some federal funds from the Thruway Authority. But removing the tolls, he added, would eliminate the double taxation issue.
Dan Gilbert, a Thruway Authority spokesman, said the system is financed solely by tolls and receives no tax dollars for its operation.
"The fact is that Congress restricted the use of the $4.89 billion it authorized for New York in 1991 to future capital projects and traffic operations only, and prevented it from ever being used to remove tolls," he said. "To date, the state has received only $600 million of that."
Gilbert also said the authority and state Department of Transportation will soon schedule a briefing for local elected officials "so that everyone can better understand the issue."
Higgins' toll-removal effort, endorsed by Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, joins a lawsuit filed by downtown businessman Carl P. Paladino, which is expected to be financed by Erie County.e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org