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Canadians get a free pass on Grand Island. That could soon extend across N.Y.

Western New Yorkers who drive on the 407, the cashless toll road that runs through Ontario near Toronto, get a bill later if they don't pay what they owe electronically.

So what happens when Canadians drive through the cashless tolls at the Grand Island bridges without paying?


That's why some people on this side of the border – including those who fought to get rid of the tolls and reluctantly settled for the removal of the collection booths – are frustrated the State Thruway Authority can't force the many Canadians who drive through the bridges to pay.

"I think that's wrong and it's unfair to everybody else who pays their tolls," said island resident Glenn Bobeck, who has led a public campaign of sorts on the issue.

The Thruway Authority is losing a substantial amount of revenue each year from Ontario and Quebec drivers who don't pay.

The authority relies on Canadians to sign up for E-ZPass or otherwise pay their tolls online or by phone. Although Canadians are historically portrayed as polite, skeptics wonder how many really do go out of their way to make those payments.

The problem is the Thruway Authority doesn't have an agreement with Ontario or Quebec to link a license plate to a vehicle's registered owner and mail a bill to an address in those provinces. The authority said it is working on resolving this issue, but the agency told another media outlet the same thing 11 months ago.

The 407, however, is managed by a private operator that has the ability to bill American drivers.

There's a bigger concern looming. The authority plans to convert the entire Thruway to cashless tolls by the end of next year, and the system would lose even more revenue if it doesn't have an agreement allowing it to bill Canadians by then.

"The Thruway Authority has had a lot of problems, and one of the problems I'm frustrated with is this Canadian issue," Grand Island Supervisor Nathan McMurray said.

The oldest of the Grand Island bridges were built in the 1930s and tolls have been in place since the beginning. The cost to cross today is $1, or 95 cents for E-ZPass account holders.

In 2017, 23.6 million vehicles traveled through the toll barriers on the bridges, or nearly 65,000 vehicles per day, according to the authority.

The Thruway Authority won't get rid of the tolls altogether. But, in March 2018, cashless tolling went into effect on both bridges.

Here's how the new Grand Island cashless tolling works

The system is straightforward.

Motorists drive at highway speed under gantries built at each end of the island that have technology to scan vehicles and take photographs. If you have an E-ZPass, the toll is deducted from your account. If you don't, the registered owner of the vehicle is sent a bill.

But they can't send them across the border, Thruway spokeswoman Jennifer Givner said. Why not?

"In order to obtain vehicle registrant information, we need to have legal agreements in place with those entities," Givner said in an email. "We have them with most states and we have been working diligently toward an agreement with Ontario and Quebec."

Givner, who told the same thing to WGRZ-TV a year ago, did not say what the holdup is.

Most Canadian bridge travelers are from Ontario, and an Ontario Transportation Ministry spokesman declined to provide details on why there's no agreement in place 16 months after cashless tolls went live.

"The Ministry of Transportation continues to discuss this issue with our counterparts in New York State," the ministry's Bob Nichols said in his own email. "As of yet, no data-sharing agreement has been reached."

Bobeck asked about this issue at a May public meeting hosted by the Thruway Authority at the Western New York Welcome Center on Grand Island.

He also followed up directly with Givner.

"Those answers were less than satisfactory," said Bobeck, who later told a Buffalo News reporter about the exchange.

Givner told Bobeck, and The News, the authority essentially is counting on the honesty of Canadian drivers. They can sign up for E-ZPass just like drivers here. If they don't, they can figure out how much they owe and pay the bill online, over the phone or through the mail.

"All motorists traveling through a Thruway tolling facility are expected to pay their tolls. Canadian citizens, similar to other customers who do not have E-ZPass, have multiple options to pay their tolls," she said.

How many actually go through all of that effort when they're not required to do so?

The Thruway Authority could not provide data on how many Canadians travel over the Grand Island bridges and how many of them do it without paying.

Islanders say it has to be a sizable, if unknown, number.

"Seeing a Canadian license plate is just common here," said Amanda Pike, an island resident and environmental sustainability consultant.

Pike, who regularly works from a table at the Welcome Center, said people from both countries are confused about the cashless tolls. She said motorists frequently come into the center, where E-ZPass representatives are posted, to ask how they should pay their tolls. Some even come up to her with their queries.

"They think they have to come here to pay," Pike said.

Bob Richardson, managing partner of Blue Cardinal Capital in South Buffalo, is an American who lives in West Lincoln, Ont., with his Canadian wife.

He said most Canadian commuters and regular visitors to this country, like him, get E-ZPass accounts for the convenience. And, Richardson said, they account for the vast majority of Canadians passing over the bridges.

He said, if any Canadians are traveling on and off the island without paying later, they're doing so unwittingly because this gap in the collection process isn't well-known.

"The honor system presumes that you know you need to honor something," Richardson said.

McMurray and Pat Whalen say they both have received bills for tolls they didn't pay when driving on the 407, the electronic toll road that carries traffic in and around the greater Toronto area.

"I always assumed there was a reciprocal agreement between New York State and Ontario," said Whalen, director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute and executive vice president of the Canadian-American Border Trade Alliance.

Whalen, who has decades of experience on cross-border trade issues, said he suspects the Ontario government has concerns about sharing Canadian drivers' data with New York.

Nichols confirmed the province wants any agreement to ensure "Ontarians' privacy rights are protected." He further referred The News to the toll road's operator, which did not respond to a request for comment.

"When I get on their express roads, they charge me. There's got to be a way for us to charge them," McMurray said.

It's different on the Thruway. If someone skips the cash lane and drives through E-ZPass lanes without an account, that's considered a violation, Givner said, and the Thruway Authority can send violation notices to Canadian drivers.

The Thruway isn't a problem now because people still can pay cash at the toll barriers. But the whole system is scheduled to go cashless by the end of 2020, and that means the potential loss of more money from Canadian drivers.

Bobeck said he has nothing against Canadians, but, "I would like to see the Thruway Authority take steps to ensure everybody is treated equally."

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