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Islanders’ break on bridge toll challenged

Suit questions limiting it to Grand Islanders

By Gene Warner
News Staff Reporter
Updated: October 22, 2009, 8:18 AM

Two people from outside Western New York have gone to federal court in an attempt to make Grand Island residents pay more to cross the bridges serving the island.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of a man from Long Island and a woman from Ontario, Canada, cries foul over the toll break that Grand Island residents get in crossing the bridges. They complain that Grand Island residents get too much of a break on their tolls, paying only 9 cents for a one-way trip that costs nonresidents up to $1.

The legal action against the Thruway Authority is a twist to all the screaming about motorists paying excessive tolls on their daily commutes along local sections of the Thruway.

And it doesn't sit well with Grand Island officials who have battled the bridge-toll issue for years.

"I think it's frivolous," Supervisor Peter A. McMahon said Wednesday. "I guess I don't understand why anyone would seriously consider a lawsuit and why the federal courts would even listen to that lawsuit."

But a federal appeals court is treating the claim seriously. The lawsuit, filed three years ago and dismissed by a federal court in the Albany area in January 2007, has been revived by the appeals court, which overturned the findings of the lower court last week.

The 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals issued the decision last week in a 31-page ruling on a whole array of complicated legal principles.

"We were very pleased that the Court of Appeals reinstated the case," said Andrew P. Bell, one of three attorneys representing the two plaintiffs. "They set what seems like a tough standard, but we're glad our clients will have their day in court."

It's an issue of fairness and constitutionality, suggested Bell, from the Locks Law Firm in New York City.

The attorney believes that a discount could be applied to frequent commuters but not just based on where they live. "We have told the court the classification should not be based on residency, because that discriminates against people from outside New York State and other people within New York State," he said.

The case was filed on behalf of Robert Selevan of Nassau County and Anne Rubin of Ontario, both U.S. citizens.

It may be difficult to imagine that anyone — especially someone not living in Western New York — would be willing to go to the trouble to file a lawsuit over someone else getting a break on a $1 bridge toll, especially when downstate bridges have higher tolls, including the $5 car toll on the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Legal observers said that in similar class-action lawsuits — where someone files a lawsuit on behalf of a large number of unnamed people — attorneys often recruit clients.

"This case came to us," Bell said. "We didn't recruit anyone. People thought this was unjust and unfair."

The suit seeks to end the residency classification but not any commuter discount. Bell said it also seeks some repayment to people who paid more than Grand Island residents.

The appeals court based its findings on strict legal grounds, not on other factors.

"Despite [the Thruway Authority's] arguments to the contrary, the size of the burden on an individual plaintiff is irrelevant," the three-judge panel wrote. "Although we are not aware of the precise number of potential plaintiffs, we are confident that neither the number of prospective class members nor the cumulative difference between the tolls they paid and those paid by Grand Island residents is negligible."

When the lawsuit was filed, the one-way charge for most vehicles going over the Grand Island bridges was 75 cents, with Grand Island residents paying only 9 cents per trip. Since the lawsuit filing, the one-way charge has increased to $1, while the Grand Island resident fee has stayed at 9 cents.

E-ZPass holders pay 95 cents per trip, and frequent commuters can pay a monthly minimum of $5.20, for 20 trips at 26 cents apiece, according to the Thruway Authority Web site.

The issue of paying tolls on the Grand Island bridges has been a sore point for residents.

"I think the current arrangement is fair, if there has to be a toll," McMahon said. "Grand Island residents should be given some kind of break, because we don't have any choice. We can't go to a hospital without crossing a bridge. We can't go to a movie theater. We can't go to a shopping mall."

When the bridges were owned by the Grand Island Bridge Commission, residents were promised that the toll would come off as soon as the bridges were paid off, the supervisor noted. That vow was repeated when the Thruway Authority took over the bridges.

"It didn't happen either time," McMahon sAid.

Asked how Grand Island residents would react when they learned about the lawsuit, he replied, "I hope they have a sense of humor about it, because I think it's ludicrous."