An Island without fear… Part 2 of 4: Fear from tolls

Dear Islanders;

The Grand Island tolls must go. The tolls represent a 90-year bait- and-switch scam. The bait? We will build a bridge. The switch? On second thought, we will do whatever we want—forever. It’s time for us to stop being suckers. 

The never-ending mortgage

Do you have a mortgage? Look forward to paying it off? What if the day you paid it off, the bank sent you letter and said, “Not so fast. You need to keep paying. You might need a new water heater or a roof soon.”

Stay with me. Imagine now that when it was time to fix the water heater or the roof you called the bank and the bank said, “Sorry, your payments won’t cover it. You need more cash . . . and more payments.”

Let’s keep going with this analogy; just one more paragraph. Imagine that on the last day of your final payment the bank called and said, “Bad news, we need to keep collecting to pay for your neighbor’s new driveway, and maybe even his nice new car, and whatever else we feel like—forever!  Plus, there will be no more statements, and we won’t let you in your house ever again, unless keep paying.”

How would you feel? That's how anyone who uses the Grand Island Bridges should feel. Let me explain.

90-year toll history in a few paragraphs

It all started in 1929. NYS created a bridge commission to build the bridges. To pay for it, they were allowed to collect tolls, but the law said clearly the tolls could cover nothing more than the construction costs. That’s it. 

But years later, after the bridges were almost paid off, the law was amended to allow for tolls to cover “operations.” Plus, the State took out more loans to allegedly pay for bridge upkeep. Hence, the tolls continued all the way until the 1980s.

Thats when he wheels almost came off on the toll scam.  The state relies on federal cash to operate its highway system. And the feds said, essentially, “Unless you scrap the tolls, no more fed money.” In other words, they said, “No more double dipping.”

New York State really wanted to keep that federal green coming, so they agreed to remove the tolls by 1986. Still, they managed to delay the removal all the way until 1996, before finally (and very subtly) telling the federal government, “We're so sorry, but we can’t keep the deal we made. We need the tolls . . . to pay for the canals and, uh, some other stuff . . . " Huh?

But hope endured, and divergent political forces converged to threaten the tolls once and for all: Carl Paladino lead the fight in Buffalo, and Congressman Brian Higgins made some noise in Washington. FINALLY, a law was passed to remove the tolls from the Niagara section of the I-190 titled “Niagara Thruway Toll Removal Fund”.

And Voila! In 2006 the tolls near the Peace Bridge were gone. Grand Island is part of the Niagara section of the I-190 so why are we still paying? Well, lawmakers kept one sneaky sentence in that vexes us still, namely a line saying, “bridge tolls may endure” . . .  sigh. The never-ending mortgage continues.

All this for a buck?

Consider these many years of legal gymnastics. Consider the lack of accountability. Consider the ache on and abuse of the rusted bridges. It’s not about the dollar-bill paper cut so much as the infection that comes with it—the pollution, the strain, the insult and the pain in the neck! 

There are costs well beyond the dollar. The tolls block travel, cutting off attractions up North on the lower Niagara from attractions down South in Buffalo and beyond. Every visitor must do the calculation in time and gas before deciding whether to make a trip. 

And so, Grand Island, instead of being the gateway to the Mighty Niagara, is the traffic equivalent of a TSA security check. They might as well say, “Welcome! I hope you enjoyed the traffic jam and smog while you wait. Please put your valuables in the scanner. But leave a buck in the dish!”

If it’s nothing to downstate, let us keep it!

“They pay more on the bridges down state,” you say? “Who cares!” I say back. Let them fight too. Or is your argument that it’s only 9 cents for Grand Island residents? Well, maybe we should get that nine cents back!

Grand Island hosts that thruway for the benefit of all of New York, but none of the toll money stays here. No one else has to pay to get home! Just imagine what we could do with all those dimes and nickels! Sure, it might be nothing to the big spenders down state and in Albany, but it’s a lot to Grand Island!

As the host community, we deserve to balance the benefit we gain from the bridges and the burden the tolls inflict. Right now, the scale is flipped. Yes, use our taxes to give us safe passage, but give us lights as well that illuminate the river with color and life. And if you must insist on tolling us like it’s still 1929, at least give us tolls fit for 2017! We need high-speed tolls that save money and time.

Help me end slap in the face

We are reasonable people. But make no mistake. We will not endure what is, upon closer examination, an unreasonable scam. And we won’t continue to just “trust” faceless burecrats who ensure us that the tolls keep us safe and are a good deal. Help me make them keep the original promise to Grand Island and the Niagara Frontier. Let’s end this petty tax. 

This will be no easy fight. It’s a fight I can’t win alone. I can have all the rallies I want, but it will amount to less than a whine of a mosquito in the ears of the toll guardians unless you get involved. I will help you. Now that I have a little time under my belt I can say strongly that a handful of determined citizens in the right can trump and politician. 

To help the cause I am starting: This will be a non-partisan, online meeting place for all those who want to learn about the tolls and help create movement to rip them down. Log on now and read detailed history of the tolls on Grand Island. There will be more to come. 

Educate, analyze, energize. We can do this Grand Island! We can do this Western New York! End the scam! Slap back! 

With highest regards,