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Grand Island renews push to eliminate tolls on bridge

Nearly 23,000 vehicles cross the Grand Island bridges every day, and drivers must stop to pay a toll - now $1 - that has been in place since the bridges were constructed nearly 90 years ago.

Even Grand Island residents must pay a discounted toll to return to the island.

But it's not just the tolls that aggravate motorists on the main highway from Buffalo to Niagara Falls. Delays, especially during rush hour, tourist season and when a minor fender bender occurs on the bridges can back traffic up for miles and make the trek through Grand Island a grueling stop-and-go experience.

Grand Island Town Supervisor Nathan McMurray and other island officials publicly launched a new effort Friday to pressure New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to eliminate the bridge tolls.

At the very least, they want the toll booths removed and replaced with an automated cashless toll system like one used at the Tappan Zee Bridge that allows motorists to pass at a high speed and be billed later.

Such a move would benefit tourists heading to Niagara Falls, as well as Grand Island residents and businesses, they say.

There's plenty of support for eliminating the tolls in Western New York. A Facebook page, called WNY for Grand Island Bridge Toll Barrier Removal, was launched last year and has more than 2,700 followers. As of Thursday, McMurray and 213 others had signed a new online petition to tear down the Grand Island tolls.

"Traffic congestion at the bridges and added pollution from the vehicles waiting at the tolls ... Enough already! Time for the tolls to go," wrote Tarrie Mercer, one of the signers.

Grand Island Town Supervisor Nathan McMurray speaks at a rally in support of getting rid of toll barriers on the Grand Island bridges in May 2016. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

But similar past efforts have failed to win support in Albany.

Rus Thompson, a Grand Island business owner, said he started his fight to remove the tolls over 20 years ago. He garnered 10,000 signatures on a petition and took his concerns to Albany – and three different governors.

Eight years ago, he helped write a bill that would have removed the I-190 from New York Thruway Authority's control and put it under the state Department of Transportation, which does not collect tolls, but maintains the road and bridges. Despite support from then-Gov. David A. Paterson, who had pledged to sign the bill, the legislation never moved forward in the state Senate and Assembly.

There is money at stake for the Thruway Authority.

Maria Lehman, the authority's interim executive director, last year defended the bridge tolls as necessary to maintain the bridges and I-190 on Grand Island. Using toll revenue, Lehman said the authority had paid for nearly $120 million in capital improvements on the Grand Island bridges over the last five years, and an additional $47 million would be spent during 2016-17.

As for automated tolls, State Sen. Chris Jacobs called on the Thruway Authority in a Feb. 3 letter to implement a high-speed cashless toll system on Grand Island.

“This technology is successfully utilized at more than 35 bridges, tunnels and toll roads across the United States and is used by the Thruway Authority at the Tappan Zee Bridge in downstate New York,” said Jacobs, R-Buffalo. “This technology will reduce traffic congestion, reduce air pollution and increase safety ... This is another example of the unequal treatment Western New York receives as compared to the New York City area. Tappan Zee has cashless tolling and it’s time to bring cashless tolling to Grand Island.”

Two weeks later, the new acting executive director of the Thruway Authority, Bill Finch, told a State Legislature budget committee that the Cuomo administration has no specific plans to bring a cashless toll system to the upstate portions of the Thruway.

“We’ve looked at it. We have no plans at the moment,’’ testified Finch, the Thruway Authority's acting executive director.

Cashless toll systems allow drivers to pass under cameras on toll roads without slowing down, and the state then bills the motorists later.

At a news conference in Williamsville on Feb. 16, Cuomo told reporters that a cashless toll system is "efficient long-term, but very expensive upfront" and something that would need to be phased in in upstate New York.

McMurray and others are not giving up.

McMurray will hold a press conference with concerned citizens at 8 a.m. Friday at Grand Island Town Hall, 2255 Baseline Road. Also attending will be Patrick Whalen, director of the Niagara Falls Global Tourism Institute, Grand Island resident Michael Billoni of Billoni and Associates and Lewiston resident and commuter Brian Michel, who started the Facebook page one day after being stuck in gridlock near the bridge.

Michel said the meeting will kick off the petition drive. He hopes they will garner 10,000 signatures. They also plan to begin a GoFundMe account to pay for renting billboards in and around Western New York promoting the effort.

Eventually, Michel and McMurray and other interested citizens plan to take a bus trip to Albany to deliver their petition to Gov. Cuomo's office and demand change, Michel said.

The traffic delays at the Grand Island tolls are a "psychological barrier" to the movement of people between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, Whalen said. Even if the state doesn't remove the tolls, or put in a cashless toll system, the state should consider removing the toll collectors and requiring all motorists use E-ZPass.

McMurray said the toll is an unavoidable tax on businesses that are forced to pay tolls to bring both truckloads of goods and workers to Grand Island. Even restaurants on the island suffer.

"Restaurants famously advertise – 'Come visit us and we will give your your $1 back,' " McMurray said. "It's daunting to go over the bridge itself and then you have to go into your purse. Why make it more difficult?"

Grand Island residents can qualify for a discount and pay eight cents to pass through the toll booth, instead of the $1. Commuters who make at least 20 trips per month through the toll booth can qualify for a discounted rate, 28 cents per trip.

In 2015, only 2 percent of total revenue from tolls on the Grand Island bridges were paid by Grand Island residents and just 10.5 percent of toll revenue came from commuters, Lehman said in a 2016 op-ed piece in The Buffalo News.

Motorists charged the full $1 toll paid 87.5 percent of the $18.4 million the Thruway Authority collected in Grand Island tolls in 2015, according to the agency.

McMurray said when he took office last year and called on the state to eliminate the tolls, there was a lot of positive response, from both politicians and residents. But nothing has changed. And he said he was told it would take up to 10 years for the state to bring a cashless system to the Grand Island bridges.

"Our ultimate goal is toll removal, but we can't wait another 10 years for something to happen or for politicians to put forth meaningless proposals that don't change anything," said McMurray. "This toll is not like other tolls. It is a significant barrier to all of the region."

Meanwhile, Cuomo's administration plans to invest millions of dollars to help Grand Island welcome tourists and improve its recreational opportunities. The governor named Grand Island as the site for a new multimillion-dollar Visitors Welcome Center, which will provide information about local attractions to tourists on their way to Niagara Falls or Buffalo. Under Cuomo, the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has committed to spending $2.5 million to repurpose West River Parkway into a bike and walking trail.

"With the center going up and the bike path, we've got to make it easier for people to come over here," Billoni said.

Michel said he thinks this year's anti-Grand Island toll effort might be more successful because social media enables organizers to reach more people. Plus, the state's willingness to install cashless toll systems elsewhere gives the Grand Island effort more leverage.

"But I see these high-speed tolls as a half measure. I would like to see these tolls removed outright," Michel added.

With all the money collected by the Thruway Authority, McMurray said he expects improvements to the bridge, such as painting and LED lights – similar to what was done on the Peace Bridge in Buffalo.

Thompson described the money that the Thruway Authority collects on the Grand Island bridges as a "slush fund" that goes into the general fund.

"If all that money they collected went back into the Grand Island bridges, they would be gold-plated," said Thompson.

Jennifer Givner, director of media relations for the New York Thruway Authority, said the bridge toll revenue has been put back into the community.

"Over the past several years, more than $106 million in capital improvements have been made to the Grand Island bridges. In addition to these investments, in 2010, the Thruway Authority erected "Business District" signs on the I-190 in an effort to direct motorists to the downtown Grand Island business district. The Thruway Authority will continue its commitment to reinvesting toll dollars to operate and maintain one of the safest toll roads in the nation," Givner said.

But Whalen said anyone who has been backed up by a fender bender would disagree, calling the design of the bridges "horrible."

"There are no shoulders and even the slightest fender-bender backs up traffic," said Whalen.

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