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By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief

ALBANY - A national trucking organization Thursday filed a lawsuit against the state Thruway system, claiming that toll revenue is being illegally diverted to fund the state's canals.

The lawsuit by the American Trucking Associations said that New York diverts millions of dollars each year in toll revenue to fund the vast canal system, which is also owned by the Thruway Authority.

"During these times of underfunding highway infrastructure, we cannot afford to have tolling authorities take the money users pay for maintenance and upkeep of the roadways and use it for recreational or other unrelated purposes," ATA president and CEO Bill Graves said in a statement.

The Thruway Authority has owned the aging, 524-mile canal system since 1992 and spends an average of $80 million to $90 million each year to operate it. The state Legislature and Gov. Mario Cuomo agreed to move the canal system off the state's books and onto the Thruway's.

Lawmakers have talked about spinning off the canal system from the Thruway, saying it is a burden on tollpayers who use the Thruway.

Business groups last year beat back a proposed 45 percent toll increase on large trucks, which was estimated to bring in about $85 million annually -- about the same as it costs to run the canals.
The lawsuit claims that the Thruway's toll rates violate the Commerce Clause because they "are not based on a fair approximation of commercial truckers' use of the Thruway."

The lawsuit adds that the tolls "are excessive in relation to the benefits conferred on commercial truckers for paying those tolls."
The state Thruway declined comment, saying they had not been served.

Once the crown jewel of commerce, the 363-mile Erie Canal built in 1817 and its various arteries have had an ongoing decline in traffic. In 2010, 99,343 vessels crossed a lock or liftbridge, down from 123,358 in 2007.

The state Comptroller's Office said last year estimated that the canal system, which now mainly used for recreational purposes, will need $436 million in operating and repair funding through 2016.
The lawsuit comes as the Thruway is dealing with its own financial uncertainty. Two credit agencies recently downgraded the Thruway, raising concerns about how it will pay for a new Tappan Zee Bridge in the Hudson Valley. The bridge is expected to cost $3.9 billion and open in 2018.

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