It was created in 1991 as a "lockbox" to assure that highway and motor vehicle taxes were used for pay-as-you-go improvements to the state's deteriorating highways and bridges.

Instead, almost two-thirds of the money put into the state's Dedicated Highway and Bridge Trust Fund has been spent on other things, including debt service and general operations at the Department of Transportation, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said Thursday. At a news conference in Mineola, DiNapoli called the practice "highway robbery."

The state's budget process should include a plan to return the fund to its original purpose, he urged.

"This money should be going toward keeping our roads and bridges safe, not to fund state agency operations," DiNapoli said. He noted the recent closing of the Crown Point Bridge connecting New York and Vermont as evidence of the urgent need for highway funding.

"Using this dedicated capital money to pay for operations and debt service is just one more gimmick on the list of New York's bad fiscal choices," he said.

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The construction industry hailed the creation of the trust fund in 1991 as a way to provide a reliable income stream for highway rehabilitation that would avoid costly bond debt.

But starting just three years later, the Legislature changed the law so it could be tapped to pay debt service for bonds issued by the Thruway Authority that were never approved by voters, according to a report DiNapoli issued Thursday. In 2001, the law was amended again to allow the fund to be used for Department of Motor Vehicles operating expenses and for snow and ice removal.

So much debt was piled onto the fund that the general fund has had to be tapped to meet the fund's obligations, the report noted. That burden on the general fund is expected to total $3.9 billion over the next five years.

"It was a lockbox with keys that were given to everybody," said Mark Herbst, director of the Long Island Contractors' Association, who praised DiNapoli's report. "This has to stop."