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Topping off the gas tank and leaving 20 to 60 minutes early are standard operating procedure for the Battle of the Bridge.

Grand Island commuters who have fretted, fumed, overheated their car engines and w-a-i-t-e-d in stop-and-stop traffic since March 31, when the southbound South Grand Island Bridge closed, say there's not much else that can be done.

On June 9, if the schedule holds, they once again will breeze across both spans, says Richard A. Frei of the New York State Thruway Authority. "I would hope we'd get a few hurrahs, although I expect there will also be some snide remarks," said Frei.

For those who live on Grand Island, or who commute across it each day, the past two months have been a true test of patience. Each day they are faced with punching in late for work and being late for dinner. A busy day on the job turns into an arduous drive home. Everyone seems to be getting up earlier and weekends are seldom any easier when it comes to leaving the island.

Residents have invented ways to cope.
her choice
Lee and Marilyn Randolph, Grand Island residents and Buffalo workers, leave home an hour earlier. "By 6:30 a.m. there's a wait," said Randolph as he sipped coffee at a Niagara Street McDonald's that has become a breakfast stop for some commuters.

At a nearby table, Don and Betty Smith tell the same story: "It's the only way to avoid the bulk of traffic -- and the uncertainty."

Commuters tend to scoff at estimates of delays given on radio traffic reports, especially after they've been waiting for 25 minutes and the delay is said to be 10. "What may look like 10 minutes to them looks a lot more like 15 minutes on my watch," said Randolph.

Early in the game, Grand Islanders learned some tricks to survive the ordeal. Some no longer use the stretch of Thruway that cuts across the island. Randolph said he has seen it backed up for a mile while only three or four cars wait to merge onto the bridge from the Beaver Island Parkway.

Approaching the bridge after work, regulars stay in the left lane, said to be quicker, to approach the toll booths.

Some use the River Road entrance because it tends to be less congested. "You take your pick," said Smith. "It's a crap shoot."

It's also a challenge. Gary Sfeir, regulatory affairs manager of Life Technologies Inc., who has a twice-daily 20-minute delay, says: "In the morning, I find other drivers to be more courteous. In the afternoon, after a day of work, it's a mad rush to get home and the last thing you want to do is to hit the traffic at the bridge."

State trooper Gregory Lang, who has staked out both sides of the bridge, said the major problem is drivers riding the shoulder and then trying to cut back into traffic. "Yes, that is a violation," he said. "And we've arrested quite a few people for doing it."

The bridge detail runs in cycles, he said. "Some days it's boring. Other days there's a lot more going on. I've even heard about a couple of fistfights, but I haven't seen any myself."

Tony Wezka, resident engineer for De Leuw Cather & Co. of New York, Inc., bridge contractors, said he thinks the buildup is growing. "Just looking at it, I think traffic has gotten heavier. I go the opposite direction so I don't get stuck, but of late traffic seems to build earlier than it did two weeks ago."

Frustrated commuters don't lack for suggestions on how traffic flow from the mainland to the Island could be improved:

Put a tunnel under the "whole gol-durned thing";

Build another bridge restricted to trucks;

Give Grand Islanders preferential crossing treatment;

Have bridge rebuilders on around-the-clock schedules;

Stagger work hours to eliminate end-of-the-day snarls.

Given a choice, islanders say they head north for shopping, movies or restaurants. Said Linda Butcher: "I try to schedule things the Niagara Falls way. That bridge does a number on you."

There are differing views on the economic impact of the bridge closure. Resident Don Smith says: "If the bridge is an inconvenience, maybe it will hold back the developers. So be it."

Marilyn Couch, executive secretary of Grand Island's Chamber of Commerce, said there isn't any lessening of interest on the part of people or businesses wanting to locate on the island. "The people here moan and groan, but people who come here from someplace else are used to longer waits," she said.

But Mike Kelly, owner of Kelly's Country Store, said sales are 25 to 30 percent lower than last year. "We hear from customers that they'd like to come for a Sunday drive, but the bridge has put a damper on things. The traffic isn't as bad on weekends, but all they've heard about is the delays."

The Gingerbread House, a day care nursery, has had to make changes in its schedule, bringing staff members in earlier and keeping some later because parents run into bridge delays.

"At 5:15 we might have 20 children left instead of the 10 we normally have on some days," said head teacher Carol Guagliardo.

It's the toll collectors who get the brunt of the comments when traffic snarls. "People are usually understanding," said one collector, Sandra Green, "but sometimes you'll get the ones who are a little cantankerous. It's mostly residents who think another bridge should be built. But they knew the situation before they moved here."

Though islanders will have a reprieve when the South Bridge reopens, it is scheduled to close again between Sept. 11 and Nov. 16 to finish the repair job. And if that isn't bad enough, repairs are planned for the northbound North Grand Island Bridge, which will move traffic to one bridge on that side of the island.

"I think that will be the last of bridge work for quite a period of time," said Frei.

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