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Could Grand Island-style cashless tolls be coming to the Peace Bridge?

FORT ERIE, Ont. — Peace Bridge travelers will always have to pay a toll to cross the international span — but they may not always have to stop to fork over the cash.

The Peace Bridge Authority is studying the possibility of establishing a cashless toll system like the Thruway Authority recently installed downstate and at the Grand Island bridges.

Though several bureaucratic and legislative hurdles remain, officials are hoping overhead gantries or some other infrastructure that records E-ZPass signals and photographs license plates will eventually spell the end of stopping at toll booths in Fort Erie.

“This is something we need to explore because that’s the way the industry is moving,” General Manager Ron Rienas told authority members, who unanimously voted on Thursday to research what will be necessary to implement the idea.

Rienas noted that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently committed to converting the entire 570-mile Thruway system to cashless tolling by 2020, and Highway 407 in Ontario has used the technology since it opened in 1997. Rienas also said 38 percent of cars and 85 percent of trucks have adopted E-ZPass since it was introduced at the bridge in 2002.

Peace Bridge travelers between the U.S. and Canada will still encounter delays while clearing Customs on both sides of the border, a process that takes up far more time than paying tolls. But eliminating the need to pay tolls with cash or credit cards should speed the process, Rienas said.

The recent tendency of many motorists to pay tolls with credit cards significantly slows traffic, Rienas added, while the benefit of the current process is no need for an enforcement system. As a result, he recommended that authority staff study the costs and benefits of new technology that registers signals for E-ZPass statements or photographs license plates for bills that would be sent in the mail.

Rienas noted, however, that several steps need to be implemented to make the system work, including:

• Securing legislation in New York and Ontario to access license plate data and compel payment under threat of license revocation should tolls be evaded.

• Partnering with the Thruway and possibly Highway 407 for billing through facilities like E-ZPass customer service centers.

• Joining with the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission to coordinate the new system.

The plan could also threaten between 20 and 25 Teamsters jobs held by those staffing the toll booths, he said, requiring negotiations with the union.

“This will be a long-term process that could take a number of years to become reality,” Rienas said.

He also emphasized that the key for implementing the new system will be gaining the necessary legislation in Albany and the Ontario provincial capital in Toronto.

“If we don’t get that authorization,” he said, “then clearly cashless tolling is not feasible.”

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