By Carolyn Thompson -- Associated Press
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - A month after declaring travel on the stretch of New York State Thruway that crosses its land, an ''ongoing act of trespass,'' the Seneca Indian Nation said May 16 it will charge the state a $1 toll for each vehicle traveling the highway.
The action is the latest in a series by Seneca leaders angry at Gov. Eliot Spitzer's plans to collect an estimated $200 million in tax from reservation sales of gasoline, cigarettes and other goods to non-Indian customers.
The tribe plans to send the state a monthly bill for the tolls based on the state Thruway Authority's usage figures. Seneca leaders looked into buying a set of toll booths that are being removed from a Buffalo highway, but were told they were not for sale.
''If New York state would just abide by their word and leave us alone, I think we'd get along much better,'' J.C. Seneca, co-chairman of the nation's Foreign Relations Committee, said May 16.
About 20 million vehicles drove along the 60-mile stretch of Thruway between Ripley and Lackawanna in western New York last year, according to Seneca. The tribe's territory is only about three miles of that stretch.
''Maybe not all 20 million passed through our territory, but a fairly good percentage did,'' he said.
The state is not inclined to pay the tribe's tolls.
''Needless to say, the Seneca Nation has no legal basis for imposing a fee on vehicles using the Thruway,'' Spitzer spokesman Christine Pritchard said.
In April, the 8,000-member tribe rescinded the 1954 agreement that allowed construction of the Thruway along 300 acres of Seneca territory in the Cattaraugus Reservation. The tribal council said the pact, which paid the Senecas $75,000, had not received the proper federal approvals. Two weeks later, tribal councilors threatened to cancel a 1976 agreement that allowed construction of the Southern Tier Expressway, now Interstate 86, on the Allegany Reservation in exchange for $494,386.
Spitzer met with Seneca President Maurice John in the governor's New York City offices in early May in a session described by both sides as introductory and cordial. The two leaders agreed to future meetings on the sales tax and other issues.
But with no indication that the state will change its stance on collecting sales tax, Seneca said, ''the Seneca Nation is going to do what's in the best interest of the Seneca people.''