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Grand Island bridge toll increase hits home

Updated: 01/18/08 6:42 AM

From left, Grand Island Councilwoman Mary Cooke, Town Supervisor Peter McMahon and Erie County Legislator Michele M. Iannello, D-Kenmore, huddle over some data prior to Thursday’s hearing.

You need to buy something, want to play a round of golf or go out to eat.

Would you go to Grand Island if you could go elsewhere?

“I think people stop and think about that,” Grand Island Supervisor Peter McMahon said Thursday at a meeting on the negative impact of the recent bridge toll increase. The fare for nonresidents and noncommuters went from 75 cents to $1 per crossing earlier this month.

McMahon was among several people who spoke at a meeting called by Erie County Legislator Michele M. Iannello, D-Kenmore, whose district includes Grand Island, and Legislator Timothy Kennedy, D-Buffalo, chairman of the Legislature’s Economic Development Committee.

“The current [toll] structure creates a significant disincentive for nonresidents who are potential customers for businesses on Grand Island,” Mc- Mahon said.

Grand Island Councilwoman Mary Cooke said real estate agents have told her the toll issue creates a negative perception, similar to when the Seneca Nation of Indians claimed the island as its own.

“Real estate agents direct potential home buyers away from our town because of the perception,” Cooke said. “It’s a similar situation here. You hear about the backup on the bridges, you hear about the toll.”

“The perception is much worse than the reality,” Cooke said.

“It’s really not just a dollar,” said Robert M. Ratajczak Jr., a member of the Grand Island Economic Development Advisory Board. For truckers, the toll amount is based on the number of axles on the vehicle.

“It’s much cheaper for a company to locate in Niagara Falls, in Tonawanda. Away from Grand Island,” Ratajczak said.

Further, Ratajczak said a poll by the Grand Island School District revealed the top reason substitute teachers didn’t want to work there was the bridge toll — when it still was 75 cents.

“This toll is putting a major burden on our businesses,” said John Bonora, president of the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce.

Bonora said he knows of a Grand Island trucking business owner who is renting a warehouse in Buffalo to service his vehicles to avoid the added expense the toll imposes.

“This toll is just cutting us off at the knees, and it’s getting worse,” Bonora said.

Carl Paladino, president of Ellicott Development, sued the state Thruway Authority to get rid of the Odgen and Breckenridge toll barriers. Now he has the Grand Island bridges in his sights.

“The picture here is a lot bigger . . . because there’s a terrible inequity going on,” Paladino said.

Federal taxes on gasoline go into the Highway Trust Fund, but New York’s share of that money doesn’t go to the Thruway Authority for Interstate maintenance, as intended. The authority collects tolls for that purpose, as well as maintaining the state canal system.

The result, Paladino and others say, is double taxation.