GRAND ISLAND, N.Y. - A bi-partisan group of lawmakers once again stood in front of the Grand Island bridges on Thursday to demand a "cashless toll" system, the latest in an ongoing effort to convince the New York State Thruway Authority to bring the new technology to Western New York.
With cars zooming through the Interstate 190 toll barriers in the background, Congressman Brian Higgins (D-NY), Grand Island Town Supervisor Nate McMurray (D), State Senator Chris Jacobs (R-Buffalo) and Assemblyman Angelo Morinello (R-Niagara Falls) held a joint news conference for the second time in about two months to bring attention to the issue.
In early March, some of the same lawmakers stood in the exact same spot in front of the exact same toll barriers, deriding the Thruway Authority for failing to bring cashless tolls to Grand Island. They argue that the current system, which forces drivers without E-Z Pass to stop and pay a dollar fee, causes traffic congestion and pollution. They also argue that it harms local businesses on both sides of the bridges.
"The toll bridges here are antiquated," Jacobs said. "The congestion they cause, the environmental problems, the impeding of economic activity on Grand Island and in the region, need to be recognized and resolved as soon as possible."
The Thruway Authority has implemented cashless tolls on six bridges in the New York City area, with five additional bridges expected to receive the new technology this year. The cashless system, also known as "open road tolling," aims to expedite the process by capturing drivers' license plate numbers with mounted cameras. Therefore, even if a driver doesn't have E-Z Pass, there will be no need anymore to stop in the middle of the highway to pay a toll.
The Thruway Authority, however, has not indicated it will expand the cashless toll system to Western New York at any point in the near future. A spokesperson told 2 On Your Side on Thursday that the agency still does not have an update about that possibility.
In the news conference in front of the bridges, Congressman Higgins offered a stern message to the Thruway Authority.
"It's happening elsewhere. Why isn't it happening here? That's the question we have, and the question we will pose to the New York State Thruway Authority," Higgins said. "Keep in mind, the Thruway Authority receives millions of dollars from the federal government. We have a little bit of something to say about those kinds of issues."
All of the elected leaders seemed to agree Thursday that they'd support the removal of tolls entirely on the Grand Island bridges. However, that doesn't appear feasible at this point, so they have decided to focus their efforts on creating a cashless toll system.
People have complained for years about the Grand Island tolls, which have operated since 1935. Newspaper archives show protests dating all the way back to at least 1980.
McMurray, the Town Supervisor, recalled the "penny protests" of the 1980s, where people would bring bags of pennies to the toll barriers to intentionally slow traffic.
"This has been an issue that's bubbling up and boiling over for many years," McMurray said, "but I think we're getting closer to a solution."