Dear Executive Director Lehman:
I saw your letter in the Buffalo News on June 4th. As Supervisor of the Town of Grand Island, I felt compelled to respond. Your letter focused on the economic burden of maintaining the bridges as a justification for the presence of the tolls. But I hope to persuade you to consider the bigger economic burden that the tolls place on my town and the entire Buffalo-Niagara region.
Sure, I'm concerned about how the tolls impact Grand Island, which is a town imprisoned by tolls — maybe the only one of its kind. Is it not the case that the New York State Thruway has no other tolls on any other bridge? I'm also worried about the unnecessary health risks on our citizens caused by miles of needless traffic jams. But beyond the unique concerns of Grand Island, I'm worried about the effect the tolls have on our entire region. For example, Niagara Falls—our region's main tourist attraction—is for all intents and purposes cut off from Buffalo by miles of backups.
You say the tolls are needed to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs. But are you so confident in your numbers? May I kindly ask that we look beyond the snap shot of time that supports your position, and conduct a comprehensive evaluation of what has been collected and what has been spent on the bridges over the past 80 years? I'm hoping somewhere buried in your vaults is an accurate accounting.
We may also want to evaluate the Thruway Authority's management of the repair process (cost overruns, change orders, etc.). Sadly, despite the many repairs you point to, the bridges still ride and feel like something out of dystopian novel set in 1970s recession era Buffalo. Instead of highlighting the inherent beauty of the bridges and the river with LED lighting and smooth lanes, we have rust, bumps, and dust. Plus, how much of the damage is actually caused by the location of the toll barrier? Those bridges are engineered for flow and not stop and go.
It might seem terribly bold, but I also recommend that we take the 1-90 repairs out of our conversations. As you are likely aware, the original legislation enacted to build the bridges said the tolls must be kept at the lowest rate possible. And the toll money could be used to repair the bridges only--not the 1-90, the canal system, or any other roads or bridges. Someone may have advised you that a series of legal gymnastics freed the Thruway Authority from the clear language in that original legislation. But you and I both know what it says—or at least you should. And it's hard to ignore such a clear set of standards.
And if I could make one more modest request, I would appreciate it if representatives from your agency stopped pitting Grand Island against its neighbors. Yes, residents here only pay 9 cents. But this was never about 9 cents for residents. Your agency already lost that fight when it settled a lawsuit with Grand Island residents in the 1980s to lower the toll for residents. You may recall that the original legislation—the one that said the toll money had to stay here—helped those citizens make their case. Back then the Thruway Authority also tried to claim the money was needed to pave the 1-90, but it backed down pretty quick when that old law got dusted off. I can send you a copy of the settlement if you would like.
I have to admit. You might have guessed that I'm not sympathetic to your insistence that the tolls are needed for repairs anyway. Because I (and anyone else who pays attention) am well aware your agency already receives billions of dollars from the federal government in tax revenue every year. Any repairs and improvement should be made from the general fund. With the tolls you are double (maybe even triple) dipping. When is enough, enough? And didn't your agency already promise that all tolls would be gone after the last set of bonds was paid off anyway? The 1990s were not that long ago. We remember.
If I sound a tad sarcastic or disrespectful, please understand that I feel a little disrespected myself. You're just doing your job and I'm trying to do mine. You're the appointed Executive Director of a powerful quasi-governmental agency. I'm the Supervisor of a small town. There's not a lot I can do here. But I'm thankful that maybe I, at least, got your attention. And I'm not going anywhere for at least a few more years. So instead of dismissing our concerns altogether, I'd like to invite you to work with me on a little creative problem solving.
I'm open to anything but the status quo. How about high speed tolls, improved appearance standards, or even a cash giveback to the Island to off-set the damage to our community? It's hard to even pay for road maintenance here because every contractor's truck gets hit with a toll.
None of that work for you? Well, then can you kindly make a few suggestions of your own? Anything? Please. Because another generation should not have to deal with the same set of tired justifications. People standing in clouds of smoke collecting dollar bills on jammed roads should not be our future. We need to leave all that "business" in the past.
With patience and humility,
Nathan D. McMurray
P.S. Please check out our "Home Free, End the GI Tolls" t-shirts at fxgraphix.wix.com/gitees. I'm sending one your way, but if you need any more, they are only 10 bucks—or about the toll on a delivery truck.