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Persevering toward future that's toll-free

Western New Yorkers are winning the battle for their loose change.

The toll booths at Ogden Street are gone, and the ones at Black Rock are halfway to the scrap heap. Local toll hater Rus Thompson has been stepping up his fight to give Grand Island residents the right to cross the Niagara River at no cost. Thompson is running for the Erie County Legislature seat held by Michele Iannello, who is also calling for the end of bridge tolls.

Now people who live east of Transit Road and south of Milestrip Road have cause to hope that they might be able to drive to Buffalo without breaking a dollar.

The state Thruway Authority is moving forward with plans to move the Williamsville toll barrier east to the Town of Newstead. And last month, the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council, which sets the policy for how public transportation money should be spent, issued a report outlining a long-range transportation plan for the area that included a call to move the Lackawanna toll barrier farther south.

If those two barriers are moved, it would make the Thruway a free ride for thousands of commuters from Clarence to Hamburg.

"You can part the waters and make miracles happen," said Erie County Clerk Kathleen Hochul.

Hochul is fond of saying that Buffalo is a great place to visit, but you shouldn't have to pay to go there. The former Hamburg Town Board member has for years noted that she and fellow residents had to cough up cash twice for the privilege of crossing the city line.

She has often been a lone voice calling for the Lackawanna toll barrier to be moved. After watching the other two toll barriers -- and years of government apathy about them -- turn into dust, she was thrilled to hear that her pet project might finally be gaining some momentum.

"It has been a long time in coming," she said of the transportation council's mention of Lackawanna. "I went in and thanked them. I thanked them for finally acknowledging that this needed to get done."

Hochul calls herself a conscientious objector when it comes to tolls, so much so that she once drove to Syracuse on Route 20 rather than emptying her pockets for the right to drive on the Thruway. And although it's faster for her to get downtown from Hamburg on the Thruway, she always made the trip via the Skyway. Until recently.

Now that the tolls have been removed at Ogden Street, she drives from her Hamburg home to Orchard Park and hooks up with the Thruway at Route 219. It's a longer trip, but she pays no tolls and smiles broadly as she drives past what used to be the Ogden Street barrier.

While Hochul might be best known for loathing the Lackawanna toll barrier, she was also one of the first to argue that the two barriers at the city line should come down.

As county clerk, she also has picked up the fight to get the Williamsville toll barrier project moving. The public comment period on that proposal ended nine months ago, but the Thruway Authority has not announced when the project will begin.

While there are positive signs about the Lackawanna toll barrier, Hochul notes that the relocation proposal was included in a report titled the 2030 Long-Range Transportation Plan.

"I don't know if I'll be alive in 2030, but I have kids who are going to carry this on for me," she said.

The one word Hochul keeps in mind in this fight is persevere. It's working so far. Because when it comes to paying tolls to drive to Buffalo, that change in your pocket might mean that change is finally in the air.

e-mail: bandriatch@buffnews.com

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