by Larry Austin
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer has re-introduced federal legislation that would forever protect toll discount programs such as those for Grand Island residents.
Schumer's Residential and Commuter Toll Fairness Act of 2011 provides Congressional authorization for local governments to permit transportation toll discount programs based on residential status. He said the legislation is in response to recent federal lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of toll discount programs.
Schumer said the legislation that would "permanently protect Grand Island's essential toll discount programs." He made the announcement at a press conference Thursday at Collins Marine in Tonawanda at the foot of the South Grand Island Bridge. He was introduced by Town Supervisor Peter McMahon. John Bonora, past president of the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce, was also in attendance.
"While Grand Islanders are currently afforded a discount to make the commute to daily activities a little less burdensome, legal challenges to these types of discount benefits are proliferating and threatening their continued existence," Schumer explained.
Schumer said passing the bill would protect from "ridiculous judicial decisions" local government's "unequivocal right to provide residents the toll relief they deserve."
Elimination of toll discount programs would increase a financial burden on Island residents who must leave the Island to commute to work. Crossing the Grand Island bridges costs $1 a trip for non-Island residents, and 9 cents a trip for Islanders. Schumer said if the toll discount program is declared unconstitutional, a typical Islander who commutes to work would face a ten-fold increase in toll costs, from approximately $23 a year to $260 a year.
Discount programs are "under attack" by lawsuits in other states, he said. A Rhode Island federal judge is currently deciding if toll discount programs are constitutional.
According to Schumer's office, plaintiffs in other states have brought class-action suits to declare as unconstitutional the discount fare programs like those offered by the New York State Thruway Authority. A suit in Rhode Island has accused that state's Turnpike and Bridge Authority's toll program violates the constitution by giving Rhode Island residents who cross the Pell Bridge from Newport to Jamestown a discount. The judge announced last week that he would issue a written ruling soon. His decision could strike down similar discount programs.
Schumer's legislation denies the tolls programs discriminate, and instead asserts that individuals who receive the discounts, such as Island residents, face "unequal and undue financial burdens" because they "have no other way of accessing those communities other than through a means that requires them to pay a toll."
Toll discount programs are not discriminatory, Schumer said, and their local governments should be allowed to decide.
"All we're saying is it's up to the local communities to decide," Schumer said.