It was a long time coming and, even if the pending demise of the Grand Island toll booths amounts only to half a loaf, it will be a tasty treat nonetheless for thousands of drivers every day.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the move Tuesday. Later than it should have, the state will implement a high-speed, cashless toll system at the North and South Grand Island bridges, just as it has done in some areas of downstate and as it must eventually do along the length of the Thruway.
In that, New York is behind the curve. Massachusetts, for example, has already implemented a cashless toll system along its Turnpike. New Hampshire has had such a system for years as has Highway 407 near Toronto. In New York, we’re a little slow.
But at least it’s going to happen. Come April, if all goes as planned, the justly detested barriers will be relegated to history. Gone. Traffic will move much more smoothly, eliminating a risky, slow-moving, fume-clouded aggravation that has frustrated drivers for decades.
Instead of toll booths that slow all vehicles, including E-ZPass holders, drivers will be able to proceed at normal speed beneath a structure whose cameras will read either E-ZPass transponders, deducting from that account, or license plates, with a monthly bill sent to the vehicle’s owner.
It’s a far more efficient system that will keep traffic – especially southbound vehicles leaving Niagara Falls – moving smoothly. Northbound traffic from Tonawanda could still be slowed at busy times as several lanes of traffic from the Youngmann Highway and Niagara Thruway merge onto the bridge’s two lanes.
Still, as satisfying as the change will be, it doesn’t go as far as it should have in eliminating the tolls altogether. Indeed, the implementation of the system likely means the tolls will never go away. That’s unfortunate.
Defenders on the New York State Thruway Authority argue that the tolls are necessary to maintain the bridges, but it’s the same argument defenders made about the former toll booths along the downtown section of the Niagara Thruway. Those tolls were abolished 11 years ago with no discernible impact on the road’s safety or maintenance.
The fact is, this state already takes in more money than it should. With better budgeting, those tolls could still be eliminated. It’s not a goal anyone should abandon.
Meanwhile, the state needs to commit to rolling out this cashless system across the entire 570-mile Thruway. That would eliminate other slowdowns on entrance and exit ramps and especially at the barriers on the mainline at Williamsville and Lackawanna. It would also allow the state to catch up to other states that have already adopted this better technology.
Credit for the change goes to the governor, who had the power and the appetite for getting it done. Many others played important roles, including: Grand Island Supervisor Nate McMurray; Patrick Whelan, interim director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute (travel delays discourage tourists); Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo; State Sen. Christopher L. Jacobs, R-Buffalo; and Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls. Prodding them all was a frustrated resident, Brian Michel of Lewiston.
This is an important development. It will remove much of what Whalen cogently identified as the “psychological barrier” between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. That’s always been an issue, but it is even more important now as Buffalo becomes a more interesting destination for travelers.