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Grand Island Bridge taking a toll on Visitors and Commuters

How many times have you been stuck in traffic trying to cross the Grand Island Bridge to visit the Island, Niagara Falls, the Outlet Mall, a concert at Artpark or any number of other reasons?

How many Grand Islanders wonder why one of the highest taxed states in the country is taxing them to go home every day?

Before EZ Pass, did you ever get stuck at the toll booth searching your pockets for a buck because you forgot about the tolls?

Worse yet, how many of you have just given up heading north on the 190 because you do not want to deal with the traffic jams to cross the Grand Island bridge and the thought of sitting in traffic and breathing in the fumes from tractor trailers and cars?

For the past year, Nathan D. McMurray, the Town of Grand Island’s young, progressive and entrepreneurial Supervisor, has been leading a grassroots effort to take down the tolls. He truly believes they are close.

During a well-attended 8 a.m. press conference on March 3 in Town Hall, McMurray, Deputy Supervisor James Sharpe, Pat Whalen, the Executive Director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute, this writer, a concerned commuter, Brian R. Michel and a representative of the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce, updated everyone on the current grassroots efforts and why this is now McMurray’s most immediate challenge.

A few hours later, on the side of the 190 with the bridges behind them, the town’s state representatives, Senator Christopher L. Jacobs, R-Buffalo, and Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls, held their own press conference to endorse the idea of taking down the toll booths to end the endless traffic jams to cross the bridge.

“My goal is to remove the tolls,” McMurray told the media during his conference. “When I held a press conference under the bridges last year, people told me it was a waste of time because the tolls will never come down. A lot has happened since then and it gives me great optimism that change will occur.

“I am also a realist,” the supervisor added. “These tolls have been there for 80 years so I am willing to take baby steps to get them removed. The first step is for the State to install cashless tolls similar to what is in place downstate. I want cashless tolling now!”

“Secondly, I want a full accounting of where all the revenue from the tolls has gone over these past 80 years. The original promise was the tolls would go away when the bridges were paid for but it seems every 20 years they find new reasons to keep them up. I want toll revenues invested in the bridge and I would like to see LED lights installed on the bridge, similar to what is on the Peace Bridge. This can easily be done for just a few days of toll revenues.”

McMurray has authored a website, that explains the history of the tolls to cross the bridges.

Brian R. Michel is a concerned citizen who lives in Lewiston, works in Buffalo, and is fed up with waiting in long lines to pay a toll to cross the bridges over the Niagara River that feed into one of the greatest wonders in the world. He has put action behind his concern by creating an extremely informative website, and a Facebook page, GIbarrier. He has organized a petition drive to remove the toll barriers and has begun a GoFundMe page so they can rent billboards and a bus to transport McMurray and concerned citizens to hand deliver the petitions to Governor Andrew M. Cuomo in Albany.

Michel has also organized a ‘WNY for Grand Island Toll Barrier Removal’ Public Forum on March 22 at 6 p.m. at 225 Old Falls Street at Third in Niagara Falls. He is also trying to schedule a similar town hall meeting in Erie County.

“This is a movement for the people and by the people,” the articulate and soft-spoken Michel explained after the press conference. “We are on the cusp of real change.”

A few weeks after McMurray took office in January, 2016, my wife, Debbie, Whalen and I scheduled a meeting with him to discuss the issue of the tolls. As residents of the Island for eight years we were fed up with the pollution caused by the long traffic jams, especially during the summer months, and being taxed to go home every night while Whalen was equally concerned with the psychological barriers caused by the tolls for visitors to the Falls.

At the time McMurray was encouraged by our enthusiasm and said he heard similar complaints during his campaign for supervisor. He said business owners complained about the tolls affecting business and how unfair it was for employees making minimum wage to be charged a buck to come to work.

McMurray promised something would be done and now, nearly 14 months later, it appears he will deliver on yet another campaign promise.

Nathan D. McMurray is not your typical town supervisor. He did not climb the political ladder to get to this seat in town hall, nor has he aspired for a career in politics.

Rather, he comes from a humble background in North Tonawanda where he and his six siblings were raised by a single mom after their died when he was three. He feels the pain of families struggling to get by these days because he lived it. As a youth, he has wonderful memories of Grand Island as his family would get away for a picnic in Beaver Island State Park, where he remembers swimming in the river and playing in the sand at the beach. He recalls hiking at Buckhorn Island State Park and since they could never afford a trip to Disneyland, Fantasy Island amusement park was their Disney.

Education was always stressed in his household and upon graduating from North Tonawanda High School, he attended the University at Buffalo, the University of California’s Hastings College of Law and Tsinghua University in Beijing. His brilliance earned him a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to study at the Constitutional Court of Korea.

He stayed in Korea, working in law for such international companies as Samsung and Hyundai before deciding to return to his roots in WNY with his wife, Min and two young children. Six years ago they purchased a home on Grand Island and he joined the legal department at Delaware North.

His family and his job, which includes international travel for the multi-billion dollar world-wide food concession company and privately owned by the Jacobs family, were more than enough to keep McMurray busy and very happy.

That was until 2015 when he learned his neighborhood near the River Oaks subdivision off East River Road and Whitehaven was being considered for a large apartment complex. He had enough. “Is this really the best use of that valuable space that overlooks the mighty Niagara River?” he asked his neighbors. “Or is it just a quick money scheme, a bad development idea that will scar the landscape. It must be stopped.”

His words turned to action as he became the endorsed Democratic candidate to run for Supervisor against a long-time incumbent supervisor and town board member. A hard-fought campaign saw McMurray win by a mere 14 votes, 2,768-2,754.

The youthful 40 years young supervisor continues to work as an attorney with Delaware North but in his nearly 15 months as a political leader, his mantra appears to be “I was elected by the people and I work for the people.”

As Supervisor, he and the Town Board have overseen the makeover of the roundabout on Grand Island Blvd. at the first exit from the 190; he has had trees planted along that exit, he supported the Gus Macker three-on-three basketball tournament on the Island and he fought hard to have a bike path installed by the State on the West River Parkway. The Governor recently announced a Visitor’s Welcome Center will be constructed off the 190 on the Island if approved by the Legislator.

The Supervisor is also talking with officials across the river in the Twin Cities about a boat to shuttle bicyclists to and from the Island to promote its healthy community. He is most proud of a citizen-led committee and is working with Sharpe to re-write a master plan for the Island’s future.

“Grand Island is a gem in Western New York,” he says with excitement in his voice. “This island, which is the size of Manhattan, connects the north to the south and Niagara Falls to Buffalo. Why do we want to make it harder for people to visit both places?”

Written by Michael J. Billoni

Michael J. Billoni

A journalist for nearly 50 years who was an award-winning sports reporter for the Buffalo Courier-Express until it closed in 1982. He was the former vice president/general manager of the Buffalo Bisons and a member of the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame. Handled the promotions and publicity for Buffalo’s undefeated heavyweight boxer, “Baby Joe” Mesi. Founder and is managing partner of Billoni Associates. He authored and managed “Robert E. Rich—Memoirs of an Innovator,” the biography of the founder of Rich Products Corp; published 'All In," the memoir of businessman Ronald Zoeller and is currently publishing The Seasons of Buffalo Baseball, the most comprehensive history of professional baseball in the city. It will be released April 17, 2020.

Mike and is wife Debbie love Western New York and always try to help others and encourage positive thoughts

View All Articles by Michael J. Billoni
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