Bridge Tolls

Dear Islanders,

Remove the Tolls

“I avoid Grand Island.” A friend of mine recently said to me after I asked him if he ever visited a local restaurant that I like. “When I have to go to Lewiston to visit my in-laws, I drive around the Island to get there.” he added. I was upset to hear this. But sadly, it was not the first time I heard something similar. And it all comes down to one problem: No one likes dealing with the tolls. 

Did you see that picture recently in the Buffalo News showing the bridges? The caption below it mentioned the sense of dread people feel when they see the blue arches looming on the horizon. No one wants to sit in that cloud of toxic exhaust fumes surrounded by traffic as they wait to edge through the tolls. Because of all this, I say, “Tear down the tolls!” 

The tolls do not protect us

Some of you may be thinking, “What is he talking about? We love the tolls!” You may think that they protect us, like a bridge troll scrutinizing any outsider who dares pass. I've also heard, “It’s just a buck Nate! And for us, it’s only 9 cents! That’s a small price to pay for a gated community.” Well, may I ask what kind of gated community can you pay a buck to get into? Or stated differently, if I lived in a gated community, I would not be too happy if the gate guard demanded a dime every time I tried to come home.

I believe that the desire for some to cling to the tolls is just a psychological crutch. That dollar is not enough to stop any crook or ruffian who wants  to wander on over.  Please consider— are our crime rates significantly lower than other comparable towns? Hardly. The only thing that dollar stops is paying customers. 

The tolls hurt our businesses

The tolls don’t keep away villains and outlaws, but they do keep away customers. If you ask many local businesses, running a business on the Island is a struggle. Very few customers come from off Grand Island for lunch or dinner or to buy any type of services. The toll is therefore essentially a tax on business. And make no mistake, it’s hurting “smart development” as well.

By smart development I’m talking about industry that increases our tax base—not apartment complexes that further burden our bridges and the Island. If you think the tolls stop over development, you are wrong. The lack of a sewage system on the western half of the Island was the true barrier to over development. But those days seem over, and those tolls are doing nothing to stop the stream of developers snooping around looking for plots of land for more apartments. The increased risk of over development is the reason we need our Master Plan updated, which I am working on. But that’s a subject for another week.

The toll money does not stay here

Some people think the toll money is collected to pay for the bridges and to help pay for services on the Island. But that’s just not the case. That money goes into the state’s coffers. Also, the bridges have long been paid for (probably 20 times over). And as I understand it, that dollar toll adds up to about 7 million dollars a year. Unfortunately, it costs over 2 million dollars per year just to operate the tolls! 

And worse yet, the tolls cause a large part of the damage to the bridges. Heavy tractor trailers are not meant to sit idle at the base of the bridges. That weight puts undue stress on the bridges. Plus, those bridges are meant for flow, not stop and go traffic.

The tolls hurt out region

The tolls cut up Western New York, instead of connecting it. Many are still bitter that they built the I-190 across the Island. Well, I agree. It’s terrible planning, and it scars the Island. But the thruway is here, and it’s not going anywhere. It’s the only way to get from north to south without relying on back roads. Still, people avoid it because the tolls make traffic flow so unpredictable. Is the thruway across the Island ever jammed? Almost never. It’s just the bridges. Thus, the tolls make places as close as Hamburg and Orchard Park seem like distant planets to those living in Niagara County.  

I’m not afraid of difficult issues

I know that I am wading into a patch of thorns by talking about the tolls. But I told myself that once elected, I would not shy away from taking on difficult issues. If I fail, fine. But I’m not going to fear failure. I’m not going to play it safe. I’m going to try. 

Early last year I had the chance to chat with Congressman John Lafalce. Our discussion made quite an impression on me. He cited a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes as his reason for entering into politics: "As life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he participate fully in the action and passion of his time at the peril of being deemed not to have lived." 

And thus in the spirit of those words, I ask you, “Are you ready to work with me and say no to that unwanted and unnecessary tax that has helped make the business climate of our Town so anemic and made commuting  such an intolerable pain?” If so, let me know!

I am not alone

Right now I am working with several like-minded people on this issue, including Patrick Whalen of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute. Mr. Whalen agrees that the tolls are a problem. But he also asked that we consider some other options beyond eliminating the tolls completely, such as moving the tolls to the center of the Island to make room on the bridges or going “full electronic,” which is the method used in Canada and in many other places where a camera reads your plate and you are sent a bill in the mail.

Another option is continuing to do what we have done for so long—nothing. We could play it safe, and pretend to hide behind the tolls. But is that really the answer? Should we keep people there stationed all day in a cloud of soot grabbing dollars and listening to the radio forever? No offense intended towards those fine people working in the booths, but that can’t be the smart way forward in this era of the “internet of things.” And I can’t imagine the people of Grand Island are really so comforted in the power of a government-collected dollar bill to protect them.

So say it with me folks, “Mr. Cuomo, tear down those tolls!”