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Sean Kirst: How a Facebook alliance may bring down Grand Island's tolls

When the Grand Island toll barriers finally come down, especially if it happens in the reasonably near future, there might be two key moments to remember.

The first occurred last year, when Brian Michel was on his way home to Niagara County from a new job in Buffalo. Michel, a grant writer, was hurrying to a parent-teacher conference involving his fiancee's 11-year-old son, Freddy.

The meeting was shaping up as a celebration. The child had improved in math, in a big way, and his teacher planned to share all the reasons for why she was impressed by Freddy's work.

Michel wanted to be there. He missed out. On his way to school, he sat in traffic for a long time at the south Grand Island bridge, waiting to get to the Thruway toll barriers. The parent-teacher conference was one of those little events, as a family, you never get back, and Michel couldn't take part because of a toll booth.

At that instant, it fully hit him.He thought of  the everyday moments turned upside down because someone got tied up by the barriers. He thought of the fumes inhaled by anyone stuck nearby as vehicles sit there, burning gasoline. He thought of the word he always associates with the barriers:

Anxiety.

He knew the whole region was tired of it.

"You accommodate the tolls," Michel said, "before you accommodate your own life."

Nancy Fischer: Efforts accelerate to remove toll barriers at Grand Island

For decades, many Western New Yorkers had signed petitions and written letters and held rallies and clenched their fists about the tolls they had to pay on their way onto Grand Island. None of those efforts changed much of anything. The toll barriers stayed put. Yet Michel had a different kind of tool.

He had Facebook.

Michel started a Facebook page called "WNY for Grand Island Toll Barrier Removal," which quickly piled up thousands of followers – including Nate McMurray, the new supervisor of Grand Island. McMurray, who was also rallying against the barriers, asked Michel to join him in a podcast. They turned into allies, which provided the slingshot for the second moment.

That happened last Friday, when McMurray – a Democrat who became Grand Island supervisor with a 14-vote victory in 2015 over incumbent Mary Cooke – decided he was weary of waiting for state action.

"When I ran for office, I found traditional ways of doing things weren't going to work," said McMurray, who often capitalizes on the Internet. He likes to use video as a way of making political points, including one in which a talking image of 19th century town supervisor John Nice says in a high-pitched voice:

"Tear down those tolls!"

With the newest video, McMurray said he wanted to respond to the latest news from Albany, where the Legislature was about to end its session without acting on a bill – offered by state Sen. Chris Jacobs – that would channel more Thruway money to the communities most affected by toll barrier pollution.

"I got finished with work, and I was really frustrated and I started working on it in my office, and my mind was racing," he said.

McMurray said he called his brother for help, a detail offered in the name of storytelling integrity because his brother is not especially thrilled about being in the paper. By 11 p.m. or so on Friday, they were done.

From Facebook, the video that might bring down Grand Island's tolls

The video is an open message to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, McMurray's fellow Democrat, a tongue-in-cheek mishmash that includes "Talking Proud!" footage from the 1980s and a begging kitten as well as the participation of Tea Party lightning rod Rus Thompson, a McMurray supporter whose growling words about the governor – "I don't care for the man" – bounce into a cheerful McMurray talking about all the good things Cuomo has done for the region.

The one problem, McMurray says in the middle of all of it, is that he doesn't get much response from the governor about the tolls.

The video is a kind of a political Wild Mouse ride, with a touch of Jon Stewart and a touch of Ferris Bueller. None of it is nasty but plenty of it is pointed, clearly done in the hope of going just .... far .... enough .... to tweak the governor without invoking his wrath. McMurray let Michel know it was posted, and Michel went to work using Facebook to spread around the video.

It caught fire.

By midday Saturday, the video had thousands of Facebook views, which attracted the attention of a couple of local television stations. By Monday morning, Michel had received a response to a letter he'd sent a while ago to Cuomo's office, seeking a meeting about the tolls. The letter, from a Cuomo aide, promised that Michel will have a chance to talk with Sam Hoyt, regional president of the state Economic Development Corp.

As for Hoyt, he called McMurray that same morning. Within a couple of hours, they took part in a teleconference with some top state officials, including Deputy Secretary for Transportation Ali Chaudhry. McMurray said his mission was making sure everyone on the call fully understood the intensity of regional emotion about the tolls.

By the end of the meeting, he said Cuomo's aides were talking about going "pedal to the metal" to create high-speed "cashless tolling" at Grand Island – in which vehicles fly past, the license plates are photographed and motorists are billed later for the tolls.

If that's accurate, it means – at some point – the toll barriers are coming down. McMurray doesn't known when, but he dreams about next year. Once it happens, motorists still will need to pay, but McMurray will save that battle for later: He'd be happy for now with wide open lanes at the bridges.

To Michel, reflecting upon 80 years of tolls, it all underlines one astounding point:

"There's no denying that video marks a pivot, a game-changer like nothing we've ever seen," he said.

Hoyt wasn't ready to go quite that far. He said it wasn't the video itself that caused him to call McMurray. He said he was concerned over the weekend about a Tweet from a television station that painted the video as a blowout between McMurray and the governor. Hoyt said he called to make sure that wasn't the case.

As for cashless tolling, Hoyt said Cuomo already has said publicly, months ago, that cashless tolling was in the future for Grand Island – and that Monday's teleconference was just another step in the process.

Michel still maintains what just happened is a breakthrough. Cuomo had been cautious even in the conversation Hoyt mentioned, saying the state would need to "phase in" cashless tolling. And Bill Finch, new acting executive director of the Thruway Authority, said as recently as February that there were no specific plans to bring cashless tolling to Upstate sections of the Thruway.

In other words: This is indeed a big deal. The tolls have been a choke point for Niagara Frontier traffic since before World War II, a numbing aggravation that motorists have endured for generations.

After all those years, social media offered a 21st century chance to blast that frustration on a downstate arc, toward Albany. Asked if the video became the perfect fuse, McMurray hardly hesitated in his reply.

"Listen," he said. "There's no doubt."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com, write to him in care of The News, One News Plaza, Buffalo 14240, leave a comment below and read more of his work at http://buffalonews.com/author/skirst/

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