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No vote expected on Grand Island bridge toll proposal by end of session in Albany

The New York State Thruway Authority would be required to give 10 percent of the tolls it collects on the Grand Island bridges to three communities affected by pollution caused by the toll booths traffic under proposed legislation introduced by State Sen. Chris Jacobs.

Jacobs' bill – which would require the Thruway give a total of about $1 million a year to Grand Island and about $500,000 each each to the City of Niagara Falls and Town of Tonawanda – is the latest development in an effort to pressure the state authority to install high-speed cashless tolling on the bridge or remove the tolls entirely.

But with the State Legislature expected to conclude its session Wednesday, Jacobs' proposal is not likely to become law anytime soon.

"It won't be passed tomorrow, but in the successive weeks and months ahead I will continue to try and pass this," said Jacobs, R-Buffalo, who introduced the bill last week.

The Thruway Authority has said nearly $20 million is collected in tolls each year on the Grand Island bridges, and the revenue is needed to maintain the bridges.

A spokesperson for the Thruway Authority did not respond Tuesday for a request for comment on Jacobs' bill.

Jacobs said the Thruway Authority could solve the community concerns about pollution and traffic backups at the toll booths by installing a high-speed cashless toll system. But he said the state seems to be in no rush to do that.

In the meantime, the three communities that host the bridge are detrimentally affected, economically and environmentally, and should be compensated by the Thruway Authority, Jacobs said. His bill calls for Grand Island to receive 50 percent of the 10 percent set aside for the three communities; Niagara Falls and Tonawanda would each receive 25 percent.

Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, D-Buffalo, has agreed to sponsor the "impact fee" legislation in the Assembly.

Jacobs said he and Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls, met in Albany last week with representatives from the Thruway Authority, but left disappointed.

"They were telling us to be patient," said Jacobs.

According to the Thruway Authority, about 20,000 vehicles cross the bridges on Interstate-190 at the north and south end of Grand Island each day. Nearly 23 million vehicles crossed the bridges a year. Motorists pay a $1 toll, except for Grand Island residents who pay $.09 cents and commuters who pay $.28 cents.

The Thruway Authority has told The Buffalo News that it reinvests the toll revenue into the bridges and Interstate-190. Over the past several years, more than $106 million in capital improvements have been made to the Grand Island bridges, according to the authority.

The tolls have been in place for 80 years.

Kearns said that as a former Buffalo Common Council member he dealt with another bridge – the Peace Bridge – and the economic and health concerns residents faced because of it.

"There are impacts on the community and I understand that. The reason why I decided to sponsor the legislation is that I feel that a portion of those tolls should go back into those communities that are most negatively affected," said Kearns.

Kearns, a registered Democrat, is running for Erie County clerk on multiple party lines. He said he caucuses in the Assembly with Democrats and will "absolutely continue to push this forward" no matter what his future role may be.

In May, Jacobs, along with Morinello and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, tried to pressure the Thruway Authority to either end the Grand Island bridge tolls or switch to a high-speed cashless tolling system to decrease traffic tie-ups.

Supervisor Nathan D. McMurray and others, like commuter Brian Michel of Lewiston, who recently formed the WNY for Grand Island Toll Barrier Removal, said the tolls cost residents and commuters time stuck in traffic and are also a health concern and a barrier to businesses on the island.

McMurray said he wasn't informed of Jacobs' legislation until the senator announced it to the media on Monday, but he supports it and praised the state lawmakers for joining in their fight.

He told the Grand Island Town Board on Monday, "I think everyone of us think some of that money should be staying here and there should be better accountability."

WNY for Grand Island Toll Barrier Removal also plans to erect billboards at the end of the summer with the message: "Governor, do you hear us?" said McMurray.

"So far he has been silent," McMurray said of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

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