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With cashless tolls coming to Grand Island, why not Williamsville and Lackawanna?

It worked for Grand Island, so why can't it work for Williamsville and Lackawanna?

Last week's news that the state will replace the toll booths at the Grand Island bridges with a cashless, automatic tolling system is inspiring a group of elected officials to push the New York State Thruway Authority to bring the same system to the Williamsville and Lackawanna tolls.

The Thruway toll booths in Williamsville, especially, and Lackawanna often are the sites of lengthy traffic backups as drivers, even those with E-ZPass tags, endure frustrating waits to pay their tolls.

The officials touted the environmental, economic and quality-of-life gains a change to cashless tolling would bring to the heavily traveled sections of the Thruway near Buffalo.

"The benefits are very clear," Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said at a news conference held Monday afternoon at the park-and-ride lot next to the Transit Road exit of the Thruway.

Higgins was joined by State Sen. Michael H. Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst; Assemblyman Ray Walter, R-Amherst; Williamsville Mayor Brian J. Kulpa; and the village's deputy mayor, Daniel O. DeLano.

Cashless tolling won't come easily.

The system would have to be introduced along the full length of the Thruway, all at once, and not separately at the Williamsville and Lackawanna toll barriers. The officials said they didn't know how much the new technology and infrastructure would cost. And they conceded accommodations must be made for the hundreds of authority toll collectors who would no longer be needed under the new system.

But, they said, the Thruway Authority can start by taking $750,000 it plans to spend on improving toll booths in the Buffalo division and, instead, use that money to speed up the shift to cashless tolls.

"We are behind other areas of the country. We are behind where we ought to be for cashless tolls," Ranzenhofer said.

Here's how cashless tolling works

Residents and elected officials for years have unsuccessfully urged the state and the Thruway Authority to move the Williamsville toll barrier to the east of Transit Road. They argue the long lines of idling drivers generates more pollution in the residential neighborhoods near the tolls, and efforts to avoid this congestion send more traffic into the community to seek alternative routes.

The Thruway Authority has balked at the high cost of moving the toll barrier, Walter said in an interview. Instead it has put money into construction at the Williamsville tolls meant to improve traffic flow. That work, including some lane shifting, has had a minimal effect on backups at peak times, Walter said.

The authority has told officials in meetings that it wouldn't build a new toll booth plaza at a new location because it eventually plans to replace all of its toll booths with the cashless system, Kulpa said in an interview. The question, he and other officials said Monday, is how long it will take to bring the system to the Thruway in Western New York.

"I think for us it's a question of timing," Kulpa said.

The Lackawanna tolls, located between the exits for the 219 and Milestrip Road, also produce delays, lawmakers said.

Sean Kirst: Let's honor the nameless commuters soon free of GI toll booths

Cashless tolling doesn't eliminate the tolls. It allows the Thruway to hold onto the revenue collected at the toll, while allowing vehicles to pass without slowing down. Cameras capture the E-ZPass tags or license plates of passing vehicles. A bill will be sent to registered vehicle owners without an E-ZPass tag every month.

State officials have raised concerns about lost revenue from people who don't pay the toll when driving through the automatic tolling system, citing the difficulty of collecting from out-of-state drivers. But officials said such concerns could be addressed, and they pointed to the many states that have introduced a similar system.

"If they can do it on Grand Island, why can't they do it here, and in Lackawanna for that matter?" Walter asked.

Ranzenhofer pointed to the recent nomination of Matt Driscoll, now director of the state Department of Transportation, to head the Thruway Authority as boding well for a new direction for the agency. Higgins cited Cuomo's personal visit to Grand Island last week to announce the toll news there.

"So we applaud his leadership, and we're asking it be extended to the entire New York State Thruway," Higgins said.

In a statement, Thruway spokesman Jonathan Dougherty noted the "significant investment" involved in bringing cashless tolling to the two toll barriers and every entry and exit point along the Thruway.

"As the Congressman knows, this is something we are working toward and we are anxious to learn more about how the federal government is prepared to assist us,” Dougherty said.

Higgins said he is open to seeking funding in the pending federal transportation bill, but he also pointed out the authority receives millions of dollars annually through the federal gas tax paid by motorists.

Higgins said he thinks the cashless tolling system could be installed within 12 to 24 months, and he said he hopes toll collectors could be absorbed into other jobs within the authority.

Craig Turner, executive director of the Buffalo Niagara International Trade Gateway Organization, attended the news conference.

He said the organization, in conjunction with the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council earlier this year submitted a series of recommended projects to the Department of Transportation Freight Plan process designed to enhance the region’s transportation and logistics capabilities. Installing cashless tolling at Williamsville and Lackawanna was a top priority.

“From a logistics perspective, the benefit of upgrading the tolls goes beyond even the environmental impacts, eliminating back-ups and allowing trucks to pass more freely through the region," Turner said in a follow-up email.

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