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Proposals, petitions call for elimination of Grand Island bridge tolls

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

Multiple efforts are underway to campaign for the closure of the toll booth stations at the north and south Grand Island bridges. The strategies include proposed legislation and petitions.

State Senator Chris Jacobs has introduced a bill that calls on the Thruway Authority to eliminate the toll booths. His reasons include ongoing traffic congestion, the air pollution that comes with it, and safety risks.

State Assemblyman Angelo Morinello is sponsoring similar legislation in his branch of the legislature. He joined Jacobs Friday morning in a news conference not far from the south bridges and pointed out that traffic congestion worsens during tourist season, creating not only a headache for commuters but a detriment to the tourist industry.

"Anybody in the summer who is coming from the 290 knows it could he a half and hour to an hour backup," Morinello said. "It could go as far as five miles."

He and Jacobs say if the Thruway Authority must insist on charging tolls, they must move from its current practice to a fully electronic "cashless" system that allows motorists to continue. 

"When you go under it, it either charges you on your EZPass or takes a picture of your license plate and send you a bill," Jacobs said. "This is not new technology. It's been used for decades."

Such a system is being utilized at the Tappan Zee bridge downstate.

In the past, the Thruway Authority has argued for the continuation of tolls as a means to collect revenue for bridge maintenance and other needs. How much money is being made is unclear to local elected officials. 

"The Thruway Authority has, historically, been very vague in that," Jacobs said. "It's hard to get that information. I don't believe they honor Freedom of Information Act requests on that.

"I've heard numbers as much as 20 million dollars. It's a significant amount of money. Clearly that is probably the main reason they've held on to this."

Earlier in the day, Grand Island Town Supervisor Nate McMurray, local businessman Michael Billoni, Niagara Global Tourism Institute director Patrick Whalen and citizen activist Brian Michel announced the launch of a petition drive. Their goal is to collect thousands of signatures from supporters of the toll booths' removal, then deliver them to Governor Andrew Cuomo.

"This will be in support of the legislative efforts. It's something of a backstop," said Michel. "We'll be organizing citizens to get behind this issue."

Michel said additional details were available at a website, GIBarrier.com. A public forum is scheduled for March 22 at the Niagara Global Tourism Institute on Third Street in Niagara Falls.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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