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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, www.teardownthegrandislandtolls.com 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, www.GIBarrier.com 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?”

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Written by Michael J. Billoni

Michael J. Billoni

Former sports reporter for the now defunct Courier-Express. Former vice president/general manager of the Buffalo Bisons. Handled the promotions and publicity for Buffalo’s undefeated heavyweight boxer, “Baby Joe” Mesi. Founder and principal of Billoni Associates. Authored and managed the publication of “Robert E. Rich—Memoirs of an Innovator,” the biography of the founder of Rich Products Corp.

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
  • TakeItElsewhere

    You choose to live or open a business on an island where there are tolls, you know that you’ll be expected to pay. Why should everyone else pay for the infrastructure (including maintenance) of two bridges that you use daily?

    Also the business owners that complain about their minimum wage employees not wanting to pay the tolls, have you thought about paying your workers more to compensate them?

    • rubagreta

      If the Tappan Zee Bridge can have a toll without a toll booth, so can Grand Island. It’s 2017. All toll booths should be eliminated.

      • TakeItElsewhere

        Sounds good to me. As long as people who use a bridge 50+ times a month don’t think they should be immune from paying for it.

        • 6pakjimmy

          David Steel trolling his own publication, how sad is that?
          A troll by any other name is still a troll, David Steel.

          • TakeItElsewhere

            Are you going to contribute to the conversation? I am not sure you understand what “trolling” means…

      • Dan

        They don’t just want the booths removed, rubagreta, they want the tolls removed; because they feel they deserve it. Because all taxation is inherently criminal, and paying your fair share is for other people.

    • 6pakjimmy

      “TakeItElsewhere” is David Steel using an another name.

      • Mytwocents

        How do you know this? He’s not denying it lol

    • Jeaniec

      The federal government already provides funding for these bridges and every other bridge and road in the U.S. The state is actually double dipping.

      • TakeItElsewhere

        The federal government does not provide funding for every bridge or road in the US. That’s just factually inaccurate.

  • There’s nothing on Grand Island really honestly worth visiting. Only around the holidays (Easter/Christmas), is Kelly’s Country Store worth a visit. Beaver Island has one of the better beaches in the area, but aside from that, no standout restaurants, no good public golf courses, no major attractions (Fantasy Island doesn’t count), and if you want to go to the Falls, most local people know to take River Rd through Wheatfield or down NFB.

    • No_Illusions

      Yeah, if you want to spend over an hour to get to the Falls, you take the long way around.

      For most people, GI is way more convenient, even with the congestion.

      • IF you’re taking the 190N, then yes. If you know your way around WNY, then you take NFB.
        If you are from the northtowns, then you don’t have to worry because you’re already much closer than the 190 would ever be.

      • grovercleveland

        Yes, for your convenience you can pay $1, or $.95 if you have ez pass

      • Matt Marcinkiewicz

        if you get off the 190 N at the River Road exit immediately before GI, you can avoid the tolls at the expense of maybe five additional minutes on your drive to the Falls

    • AuthBuffalonian

      “no standout restaurants”
      You’ve never been to Dick & Jenny’s ?
      You should check it out… http://dickandjennysny.com/

  • FreedomCM

    I also fail to see why people who choose to live far away from the city that they work in should expect that the toll bridge that enables their commute should be free. it is already only 10 cents for island residents, but a buck for the rest of us.

    Should the Thruway be free for residents of Pembroke and Dunkirk?

    • Marc Rebmann

      “Far away from the city”? It’s 4 miles from the city line to Grand Island via the bridge.

    • Cvepo

      What? Grand Island is basically the closest non-bordering suburb of the city…

  • JKR

    The toll on the GI Bridge should be $5. Help with that congestion problem.

    Because this is still a port city, the thruway needs the revenue from those Toronto-Montreal bound trucks you people pass every time you take the thruway. I know it is hard to phantom the idea semi trucks coming from Houston or LA is racing through Greater Buffalo however that is what is happening. The roads are not just about you. Plus, you live on an island, you think those bridges are going to be maintained by the mainlanders, think again. Don’t get me started about WNY job sprawl.

  • Dan

    More Tea Baggers who feel entitled to “free” roads and bridges. They think the pittance they pay in state taxes actually begins to cover the maintenance of every 70 year-old bridge in the state? If we paid enough in taxes to cover these costs, there would be no tolls. But we don’t. These spoiled whingers have never known what it is to live without a Grand Island Bridge. Well, they just might learn soon enough. They are the worst type of children. I hope DOT triples the damn tolls and removes the EZ Pass lanes just to spite them.

  • No_Illusions

    They do realize that they would need to raise taxes more to cover maintenance of these bridges right?

    A better solution would to replace the toll plazas with cameras that would automatically charge you the $1 (or less since less money if needed to employ workers to man the tills).

    This solves the traffic issue. Give residents free access to the island (pretty easy to do with license plate readers).

    They’re already doing this in NYC, so hopefully GI is next.

    • Mytwocents

      Why do island residents get free access? Do you only charge them to leave the island? They’re the main reason for the bridge, they should be the main source of funds for maintenance of the bridge.

      • Jordan Then

        They only pay something like $0.09 instead of the full $1.00.
        Residents should pay the same rate as everyone else.

        • Mytwocents

          I agree

  • Johnny Pizza

    I see both sides of the argument. On the one hand those using the bridge should pay to use it.

    On the other hand people saying that GI residents live there so they should have to pay for it must forget that we, Buffalo, are one of only two sections of the Interstate 90 that are toll free (the other near Albany). I’m sure Rochester and Syracuse residents would think the same thing about Buffalo getting free tolls, but not them.

  • BuffaloOnTheRise

    As someone who lives on the Island and has
    to drive on and off the Island every day I can even see both points. The tolls “financially”
    speaking aren’t as big of a burden as many may think. If you can deal with EZ
    Pass (good luck on that, they are horrible, and it doesn’t help the closest
    office is now near NYC), the tolls for residents is only 9 cents to get on the
    island (25 cents for regular commuters & $1.00 for others) The real problem
    is especially evident on the North Bound South GI Bridge (one from Buffalo side
    heading toward the Falls). It was designed for an era that has passed it by. The
    problem and frustration for many is that we have multiple lanes of highway
    heading into six toll booths, most of which come to a dead stop to pay, then
    within a hundred feet have to merge into a two lane bridge and drive uphill !! ….as
    you can imagine, truckers, trailers, nervous drivers have no momentum to go
    over which inevitably leads to traffic congestion and accidents.

    The solution for effective traffic flow would
    be to 1) Eliminate the toll all together since every town has bridges, the city
    has an elevated highway, and we even have a bigger skyway to serve the South Towns.
    All are bridges with no tolls that the taxpayers of GI also help pay help for. OR
    2) Re-Locate and modernize the toll booths. They can easily be moved closer to
    the 290, have up to date scanners installed, and the cars/trucks will have time
    to get up to speed and flow easily over the bridge without the frustration of
    sitting in traffic jams.

  • 300miles

    Demanding cashless tolls first, then removal of the tolls seems counter-productive. Cashless toll booths are expensive to install. The state would never put in that kind of investment just to remove them a couple years later. If people really want cashless tolls, they can demand them, but expect them to stay there for the next 25 years. If people really want all tolls eliminated then they should just focus on that.
    There is something to be said for having people that use the bridges pay more for the bridges than other taxpayers. Plus having tolls means Non-Residents that use it also pay for it. Before the tolls are eliminated I would want to know where the maintenance money would come from and how it would impact residents that never use the bridge. It would be nice to travel between Buffalo and Niagara Falls without a toll, but we should understand the downsides too.

  • eyerazor.com

    Island residents only pay .09 cents per crossing.
    It’s Buffalo and Niagara Falls residents, and visitors to the region, whom are being taxed and delayed.

  • BufChester

    Ironically, many homogeneous communities try to create economic barriers to entry by “outsiders.” We should celebrate the fact that the good people of Grand Island are so willing to break down those barriers, and welcome those for whom the price of admission is currently too high.

  • grovercleveland

    1.) This article was more about the supervisor than about the tolls, which is always suspect
    2.) I agree cashless tolls are the way to go. The savings in salary/health insurance/pension costs, plus maintenance to the toll booths make it worth it alone.
    3.) I do not have sympathy for people who live on grand island that pay tolls. For starters, their residential rate is 9 cents, commuters also get a steep discount. You live on an island, what do you expect?

  • mightyNiagara

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

    nope, because before ez pass, the toll was $0.50 and we kept a roll of quarters in our cars.

    • Matt Marcinkiewicz

      my day isn’t complete unless I catch a glimpse of Tonawanda Coke

  • Me

    1.) Who is supposed to pay for the bridges if not the tolls? 2.) There are plenty of places to live in Buffalo, you dont have to live in summer home Grand Island. If you cant afford a 10 cent toll, then move.

  • Bruce Baker

    Get rid of all tolls period.

    • David A. Steele

      Why?

      • Jason Whelan

        Now Mr. Steele, were you a Pro or Con for the removal of the Black Rock and Ogden Toll Barriers? Just curious as those tolls and their revenues went to where exactly? Certainly not to the maintenance of bridges and roadway along the I-190. For years, many Western New Yorkers has to pay essentially a “city fee” to travel the I-190.

        I used to work with a frequency in the Town of Niagara and reside in the Town of Tonawanda. Travelling the Grand Island Bridges was a daily commute. Yes I have EZ Pass and costs me .28 cents a trip. However for the money generated, what true maintenance is kept on the bridges? The Blue paint does not hold up. There should be LED lighting of the spans. The Toll barriers cannot handle peak flow of summer traffic northbound at times without significant traffic jams. So in essence, besides the sidewalk replacement and roadway replacement of the North bridges nothing else of substance has taken place that shows me after 80 years there has been worthwhile investments into these intricate spans. We see revenue recovery with the Peace Bridge Authority and the Niagara Bridge Commission as they maintain their spans at a quality level.

        Anyone that travels the QEW frequently understands that for a country that has virtually no toll roads (Except the ETR 417 north of the City) Canadian roadways are very well maintained. We pay many tolls be it to the DOT or Thruway Authority and we have some of the worst roadways in the country.

        People want to live on an Island community. I don’t understand why they should be held hostage to pay a toll (even at .08 cents) to commute to and from home. Some people want to live Downtown and pay $1400/month for a loft. Some people want to live in the Elmwood Village and pay to park their vehicles because parking is sparse.

        Western New York is a diverse community that just doesn’t include the City. Grand Island holds a rich history. It is one of the largest islands located in freshwater, and was once eyed to become the Jewish homeland. As a former city resident, Grand Island ranks in my top 3 places in WNY I would like to reside next to the Village of Lewiston and Village of Youngstown.

        Buffalo residents whined and cried for years of the Niagara Section Tolls until they were removed and now that is the primary travel corridor for travelers coming from points south on the I-90 as it doesn’t divert them to the I-90/I-290 corridor anymore as in years past.

  • David A. Steele

    Here is how you avoid tolls. Don’t live or work on an island.