BY JOSEPH KISSEL
Where’s the money going?
That’s the question newly elected Grand Island Supervisor Nate McMurray wants to know regarding the tolls that have been collected at the bridges since 1929.
“This is an old fight,” McMurray said.
As such, the veteran warrior of the remove-the-tolls effort, Rus Thompson, was on hand once again to wage battle against the New York State Thruway Authority’s control over the Grand Island Bridges — and consequently, an important swathe of Western New York.
“It needs to go away,” Thompson said after Sunday’s launch of the “Home Free” campaign to once again try to remove the Grand Island tolls and to complete the success of Carl Paladino’s effort to eliminate the Breckenridge toll barrier in 2007.
“The Thruway Authority has turned into its own bloated bureaucracy with a huge amount of staff and highly paid executives,” Thompson said. “It needs to go away.”
Thompson’s plan is to turn over control of the Grand Island bridge to the New York State Department of Transportation, which oversees most state-owned bridges and roads in New York.
“They do that one simple thing,” he said. “It’s gets passed in the Assembly; it gets passed in the Senate; and the governor signs it into law. These tolls are removed. It’s that easy.”
Since Thompson started his crusade to remove the tolls in 1995 during Governor George Pataki’s administration, his nogitolls.com petition garnered roughly 10,000 signatures. Grand Island has a population of approximately 20,000.
What’s different this time?
The leadership of Grand Island’s elected government.
“For over 20 years I’ve been fighting this and we have not had a government that was in favor of eliminating the Grand Island tolls,” Thompson said. “So I applaud the members of the town board and thank them for re-igniting this.”
Supervisor McMurray stirred up the crowd with his research regarding the original law crafted to build the bridges.
“Under this legislation it says simply that the tolls should be kept as low as possible for two reason only: the building of the bridge and the maintenance of the bridges,” McMurray said.
“But there’s a big problem. Even though this original legislation says it, we have no accurate accounting of how that’s been spent. For 80 years we have no idea where the money’s gone. We do know that it’s been very profitable. These tolls are about $20 million a year according to Thruway Authority’s own estimates. That’s three percent of their total revenue. Does that make sense? That means it’s a profit source. That means instead of paying for the maintenance of the bridge like the original legislation states and the original construction cost, which was about $2 million, we’re paying for who knows what. All kinds of ill-conceived projects through the years from Robert Moses’ effort to who knows what else.”
McMurray said electronic toll-taking methods should be the minimum that’s used to combat the daily traffic summer jams and pollution that Thompson documented during the successful Breckenridge toll barrier removal effort.
“There’s no reason for someone with their hand out grabbing a dollar bill in this day and age,” McMurray said.
Thompson offered a rationale why efforts have failed in the past.
“The biggest problem that we run into is the liberals down in New York City that pay $6, $8, $10, $12 dollars to get over their bridges. So they say, ‘You guys are getting off easy. Live with it. Deal with it. You’re paying the toll.’ The problem is we’ve been paying the toll since 1935. They’ve only been paying them maybe 30 years. We’ve been paying the toll for 81 years now. So really we funded the beginning and all the road construction.”
McMurray stressed the tolls issue isn’t just about Grand Island.
“Having that toll jams up traffic for all of Western New York,” he said. “If a visitor goes to Niagara Falls, there’s even more of a blockade for them to want to go visit Canalside and all the other attractions that are now growing in Buffalo because all summer long you have a traffic jam on the bridges. There’s a reason why northtowns and southtowns are so separated, and part of the reason is that there isn’t an effective conduit for traffic.”
Assemblyman John Ceretto said he will be introducing legislation in the Assembly to remove the tolls.
Ceretto said. “We drafted a bill, so I guess I’m the next one that carries the torch.”
Thompson said he’s going to start reaching out to the Republicans in the Senate and urged citizens to contact their elected representatives and tell them to support the removal of the Grand Island Bridge tolls.