Bridge Tolls – HOME FREE!

Dear Islanders;

You may have seen the news and the support we are getting from leaders across our region, including in the State Senate and Assembly and from County Clerk, Chris Jacobs. So please allow me to take up this subject again this week and explain a little more about why I think re-examining the tolls is important.

Today I’m not going to tell you about how the tolls jam our region, pollute our air, and hurt our economy. I’m not going to tell you why they don’t protect us—no criminal is going to be stopped by a dollar and cameras will be in place no matter what. And I’m not going to tell you about how every other forward thinking place has gotten rid of tolls and replaced old fashioned toll plazas with more efficient technology—for goodness sake, the Golden Gate Bridge was also built in the 1930's, but cars whip across it because of electronic plate-reading systems.

 No, today I’m going to focus on a different angle. I want to tell you that if the tolls stay, then we deserve some of that toll money—if not all of it!

The toll money should have stayed on GI

In 1929, the New York State Legislature passed a law to construct and maintain the first two bridges. That law allowed for tolls, but the toll money was meant only for the limited purpose of maintaining the bridges and the area extending one mile into Tonawanda and Niagara Falls—not the entire thruway system or bridges to Manhattan. Further, the law states that the tolls should be kept at “the lowest rate possible” to achieve these goals.

But the tolls went up and the money left GI. Today, according to the Thruway Authority’s own admission, the tolls have been profitable. By their own numbers, the tolls add up to nearly 20 million dollars a year, which is about 3 percent of the Thruway Authority’s total revenue.

It’s true that the Thruway Authority took on some big costs, including building the newer two bridges. But the bridges only cost a few million dollars originally. And the first two bridges were purchased by the Thruway Authority for only about five hundred thousand dollars. Amazingly, there appears to be no accurate accounting of how the toll money was actually used over these many years. Also, at around the time the two newest bridges were built, the Federal Highway Authority was actually encouraging the building of no-toll roads by committing 90% of the funding for new roads without tolls. So why did the tolls stay?

The toll money stayed to fund Albany’s hair brain schemes

Right now, all across Western New York we are tearing up the ill-conceived projects of Robert Moses. Moses is considered one of the worst bureaucrats in US history. The Pulitzer Prize winning book Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (and many, many other historical records) outline how Moses used bonds and tolls to fund his many often ill-conceived projects across NY State. He also used this money to fund his web of political patronage. You see, Moses held 12 titles at the same time, even though he never held elected office. Knowing all this, you can’t help but speculate that the GI tolls were used to fund Moses’s polarizing legacy of roads to nowhere. The tolls did not go, because there was no way he was going to give up that cash.

In the words of the film the Ten Commandments, “Let the name of Moses be stricken from every book and tablet, stricken from all pylons and obelisks, stricken from every monument . . . erased from the memory of men for all time.” Better yet, (since my son’s name is Moses), let’s just tear down the tolls or keep that toll money where it rightfully belongs: Grand Island.

Hey Albany! Show us the money!

We are a “host” community, but Albany should not take advantage of our hospitality. Almost every community harmed by a major taking (meaning giving up land or some other resource), gets something back to offset the harm. For example, Buffalo gets money from the casino. The power authority gives back to cure the harm caused to the river. Heck, even Alaskan citizens get a cut of the oil money extracted from their land. So where’s our cut from the tolls?

Even though we “host” the thruway and the bridges, the only thing we ever got in return is Eagle Outlook. What’s Eagle Outlook? It’s that little parking lot and bench looking out at Navy Island near the pump station on the north end. And if what I’m told is correct, the only reason we got that is to pacify some Islanders who complained about the tolls, the thruway, and some alleged Clean Water Act Violations by the state. We need to start complaining again. 20 million dollars a year for one bench is not a fair deal.

I say we start like this. Albany should give us an accurate accounting for how much has been collected over these many decades. Then we compare that against how much has been invested in the bridges and the original cost to build the bridges. Something tells me that there is a heck of a lot of money left over for GI. 

Grand Island (and Western New York), I need your help!

Most of you are with me—and I feel your support! But for those of you who are not, I ask you to reconsider your position. I'm not blind to the counterarguments: the tolls protect us; the tolls are lower than the ones in Manhattan, without the tolls, development would rage out of control, etc. Well, although I have considered all of this, I'm not sympathetic.

There will always be cameras on those bridges. And this is not Manhattan. There is no natural economic driver that justifies the tolls. And even if you don’t buy that, there are other ways to get to Manhattan, like the subway or driving around back. Few towns (if any!) are completely bound in by tolls. And here on GI, unless you are walking (and good luck in the winter when they don’t plow the pedestrian lane) you are not coming over. Finally, a Master Plan (which we are working on) is what we need to control growth and development. Relying on a bridge toll that supports downstate interests is not the answer.

And for any GI haters out there who may be reading this, I must also ask you to reconsider what GI is, and can be. Although few in number, I’ve received some negative comments from off-Islanders regarding our desire to unchain the Island. Freud called this sort of behavior the “narcissism of the small.” He used this phrase to describe communities with adjoining territories who ridicule each other because of minor differences. To put it another way, what’s good for Grand Island is GREAT for Western New York—‘One Buffalo’ after all. In the day and age of eco-tourism and sustainable growth, this green patch of Elysium—with the mists of Niagara floating over its many parks, paths, and groves—should be cherished, not caged up, sped through, or avoided. 

Want a Home Free t-shirt for only $10 bucks?

I’m approaching my time in office like a gunslinger facing bad odds at high noon. But heck, with a posse (of motivated Islanders) we might just come out of this thing on top. So will you join me? Will you demand fair compensation for the air pollution, the congestion, the notoriety and negative stigma the Island endures because of the tolls and the scar of a highway across the center of our land? Please keep in mind, many people already assume that some of that money already stays here. Let’s make it so. And then let’s use that money to build our streets, sewers, and overall infrastructure.

If you are with me, you can order your “Home Free” t-shirt for $10 online here !  Thanks to Jay at FX Graphix for setting this website up and doing these t-shirts so inexpensively for us.

You can disagree with me. You can call me quixotic. But no matter what you say, I'm never going to coast, never going to take the path of least resistance. So say it with me folks, “Mr. Cuomo, tear down those tolls . . . or pay up!”

 

With highest regards,

Nate

-as first appeared in the Island Dispatch