Higgins Says Violation of Policy Raises Questions About What NYSTA is Trying to Hide
BUFFALO, NY – Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-27) today revealed that his office has been denied access to public New York State Thruway Authority (NYSTA) official documents, despite the fact that Higgins’ staff followed official rules outlined on the Authority’s own website.
“We went to Albany to get the primary information necessary to research the history of the Buffalo tolls and the Niagara section of the Thruway and we were road-blocked,” said Congressman Higgins, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “Local residents have the right to know the truth. What is the Thruway Authority so afraid of?”
According to Section 108.2 of the NYS Thruway Authority’s Rules and Regulations (also see attached page from NYSTA website):
o Availability of records.
The foregoing records are on file in the administration building of the New York State Thruway Authority, located at 200 Southern Boulevard, Albany, NY 12209, and are available for inspection and copying during regular working hours and regular working days.
On Tuesday, April 4, 2006 a staff member from Congressman Higgins Buffalo office drove to the Thruway Authority’s office in Albany, New York, only to be told he would have to submit a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) Request, await a reply and schedule an appointment to access any Authority records.
On March 31, 2006 Congressman Higgins sent a letter to Governor George Pataki and NYSTA Chairman John Buono calling for immediate action to remove tolls along the Niagara Section of the thruway.
Congressman Higgins noted Buffalo residents pay for the I-190 twice: once through the tolls they pay every day, which for an average commuter could add up to $195 each year, and again through the federal gas tax that funds federal highway programs. Higgins said, “the $11 million collected at the Niagara tolls place a significant hardship on the Western New York economy but represents only a fraction of the total $913 million annual Thruway operating budget.”
The Thruway issued a response to Congressman Higgins’ letter on April 5, 2005. In its response, an Authority spokeswoman suggests that Western New York officials, including Congressman Higgins, lack a basic understanding of Thruway finances and that the Thruway is funded solely by tolls and receives no federal funds for its operation.
Congressman Higgins’ research has proven that the Authority is wrong. Thruway Authority budget documents indicate receipt of $159 million in federal aid for 2004 and $46.3 million in federal aid for 2006. In addition, Federal Highway Administration records indicate that the Thruway Authority used $194 million in federal aid to rebuild Interstate 190 over the past 30 years. Higgins calls the contrary claims of the Thruway Authority “troubling” and hoped to rely upon the Authority’s stated policy of openness and accessibility to review the public record.
“To be honest, the Thruway Authority’s claims that they do not rely on substantial federal funding really suggest that it is they, and not Western New Yorkers, who lack a basic understanding of their own finances,” said Higgins. “It was exactly for the purpose of getting a better understanding of how they are using federal highway dollars that I sent a staffer to review their public records in Albany. I am surprised to find a public agency in New York State which is even more secretive, even more afraid of public scrutiny than the New York Power Authority,” said Higgins, who last year lead Western New York’s efforts to secure a larger settlement from NYPA.
Contrary to the Thruway Authority’s claim, Congressman Higgins noted that primary document research by his office clearly shows that federal funding is a significant component in the Thruway Authority’s annual budget. (see attached pages from NYSTA 2004 and 2006 annual budgets and spreadsheet of projects receiving federal highway funding).
“The Thruway Authority is trying to use verbal manipulation to obfuscate the truth to the public -the very people they are appointed by the Governor to serve,” said Congressman Higgins. “I invite the Thruway Authority to prove us wrong and to justify to me, and to the public the legitimacy of this toll tax on Buffalo, but my sense is that can’t be done. Our argument supporting toll removal is strong and this community is ready to fight.”