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Viewpoints: Grand Island toll barriers must be removed

By Brian R. Michel

Great expectations and ambition were met with disappointment after graduation in 2012 upon receiving my master of business administration at St. Bonaventure University. I can still remember feeling the excitement give way to anxiety and frustration as I realized the world was not yet ready for me. For I, too, would join the ranks of millions of fellow millennial graduates failing to attain immediate postgraduate employment. I had resigned myself to living at home and taking my mother up on a standing offer to work out of the basement at our small, yet impactful, workforce development consultancy.

Over the next four years, as my grant portfolio grew to include an impressive array of funding achievements for area employers, I found opportunity knocking at my door. It arrived in the way of an offer to join the Community Action Organization of Erie County as a grant analyst. In this position, I would be able to take my talent in grant administration and financial advocacy to new heights as I championed efforts on behalf of the impoverished to bring federal, state and private dollars into the region. My only concern was the commute. Between my home in Wilson and the office in Buffalo is a bottleneck that is as seemingly unpredictable as it is unavoidable – the Grand Island toll barriers.

It was official; I had joined Western New York in accepting the tolls as a way of life. So what if they wasted my time, money and patience over the years? What could a working-class citizen possibly do to shake the establishment? This was the question I spent hours contemplating while stuck in traffic beyond the Grand Island toll barriers in my daily drive home.

And then it occurred to me, why not go online to see if there were others who were as frustrated as I was? Surely, there had to be at least a few of us. By the end of the week, my exploratory Facebook group “WNY for Grand Island Toll Barrier Removal” had nearly 50 followers. In a few short months, the group was poised to eclipse 4,000.

As the ranks of followers swelled, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of duty to them. These were the same people who, like me, sought a better way of life by commuting between Erie and Niagara counties. I had resolved to transform the page from a group of followers of a witty news feed, to supporters of an actual grass-roots movement.

Choosing our next move was crucial. A misstep during the onset of going public could destroy our message and derail momentum. In my eyes, a key difference between our local movement and what dominates cable news nightly was simple. Ours would be positive. We would seek to educate the public, demonstrate support, build a coalition of leadership and continually press the establishment until we realized change. These were the keys to success.

Then I needed to find some local leaders who would back this notion. The search was brief, ending in the office of Grand Island Town Supervisor Nathan McMurray. I remember leaving our first meeting thinking, “Now here was an elected official who just gets it. And better yet, he even knows how to articulate what many of us privately believe!” McMurray’s door would be the first of numerous elected officials’ doors that would later open to me as a result of the movement.

In the months following our initial meeting, McMurray and I laid the groundwork for what would be a two-pronged attack. McMurray would support the movement through official channels and I would pressure the system in ways only a citizen could.

Finally, the day came for our first public press conference. On an early, frost-bitten February morning, our band of some of the most brilliant minds in the region would put the world on notice that we were there to demand change. And truly, demanding was not going to be enough. We needed to demonstrate the level of our public support. In just a couple weeks, our petition exploded with over 1,000 signatures.

Next, the public was brought into the mix with Patrick Whalen of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute agreeing to host what would be a packed public forum.

Today, I find myself managing a far-reaching campaign. On May 27, I will be hosting an Environment and Health Summit to present figures quantifying the pollution generated by the tolls. I will be arranging a business and leadership forum detailing the economic woes created by the tolls. And of course, these are happening as parallel efforts take place behind the scenes to arrange a meeting with the Thruway Authority.

My aim is simple: To grow this movement in all of the right ways to make our appeal for positive change be heard. As my predecessors have said before me, the road to change is a long one. When doing things the right way, there are few shortcuts to be had and many long hours to be spent working on it.

It wasn’t until I caught wind my work had been called “Michel’s Circus” by the ever-distant Albany elite that I grasped the significance of what I am trying to accomplish. I know in my heart that “no” cannot be the end of this. All it takes is one “yes” to spur this change into reality. And so I say, the circus has come to town and we are here to stay. Together we shall overcome.

Brian R. Michel is leading the grass-roots movement WNY for Grand Island Toll Barrier Removal.

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