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What about those tolls to the Island?
By BRUCE ANDRIATCH

11/7/2006
"Hello, Thruway Authority? Hi. It's Grand Island. No, GRAND Island. Right, the one near Canada. Listen, the reason we're calling is we happened to notice you in Buffalo last week, something about getting rid of the tolls there?

"Anyway, . . . we were just thinking that we have these bridges, and we have to pay tolls to get home, and since you already did it once, we were just wondering . . . Hello? Hello?"

If you wanted to get to downtown Buffalo from almost anywhere, there are dozens of routes, and almost all of them are toll-free. But if you want to drive to Grand Island, you're taking the bridges. And you will pay every time.

That has always struck some Grand Islanders as unfair, maybe more unfair than the recently ended practice of paying tolls to get into Buffalo. Peter McMahon is at the top of that list.

McMahon, who has been the town supervisor for 81/2 years, was one of the first people to take a free ride along I-190 last Monday as he passed through Black Rock.

"I'm glad for the people who use the toll barriers," he said. "Now I think it's time for the State Assembly and the State Senate and the Thruway Authority and the governor to pay some attention to Grand Island."

Thanks to a confluence of factors - notably, a lawsuit by Carl Paladino - everyone can leave their houses and head downtown by way of the I-190, knowing they don't need a tag on the windshield or change in their pockets.

Well, almost everyone.

If Grand Island residents feel like the forgotten ones in this toll party, it's a role they're accustomed to. A 1982 agreement between the state and federal governments to remove tolls by 1996 specifically exempted bridges, McMahon said.

So one of the first people he talked with last Monday was Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, who represents his town. The message: "Don't forget Grand Island."

Hoyt knows that when people saw the Celebration at Black Rock last week, some of his constituents figured that their bridges were "the obvious next step." In 2000, Hoyt introduced legislation calling for the bridge tolls to be removed, but it never got far. Unlike the tolls on the I-190, highly unusual for a Thruway spur, bridge tolls are common. The Thruway Authority gets revenue from five bridges over the Hudson River.

And while some can be expensive - it costs as much as $4 to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge downstate - Grand Island residents with E-ZPass can pay as little as 9 cents to cross the bridge.

This is the point where some Grand Islanders say it's not the cost, it's the principle. And there's still the matter that they have no other way to get home; other bridge tolls can be avoided.

"The people who live on Grand Island have no choice," McMahon said. "They can't go to the hospital without paying a toll, or go to the mall or go to a movie, without paying a toll."

Hoyt notes there is a flip side; he has heard from Island residents who like the tolls, who believe they are just enough of an impediment to keep their hometown from being a victim of suburban sprawl.

Beverly Kinney, Grand Island Chamber of Commerce president, said she has heard that argument before, not just about the tolls, but also the bridges.

"People feel like they live in a gated community," she said.

The Chamber has not taken an official position on the tolls. Because the cost is so low for residents, she said, the push for removing them doesn't seem to get a lot of traction.

People said similar things about Breckenridge and Ogden not long ago.

Maybe there's a different phone call that needs to be made.

"Hello, Thruway Authority? This is Carl Paladino."