Tag Archives: tolls

Dear Howard Milstein:

2 Jun

I want to thank you for taking time out from your busy land speculation schedule here in western New York to take the reins of the byzantine and anachronistic New York State Thruway Authority.

I don’t say it’s out-of-date because toll roads are yesterday’s news. Instead, I’m referring to the fact that EZ-Pass holders still have to queue up at the toll booths like it was 1955.

I realize that removing tolls from I-90 and I-87 is probably not on the table at this point, but as a frequent traveler up and down the entire stretch of the Thruway, perhaps the state could recognize that paying $22 to get from the Deegan to Ripley is a pretty big chunk of money when one takes free alternatives into consideration. Many other toll systems – largely not in the Northeastern US, but elsewhere – have implemented a system that recognizes the fact that automated toll collection obviates the need for queueing.

Here is an example of how it’s done in Florida. Cars with transponders continue along the roadway at highway speeds, while people paying cash detour to the booths.

Seriously, it’s insane that the Williamsville, Ripley, and Lackawanna tolls booths are all designed to make even people with EZ-Pass queue up. Why? What’s the reason? Quite evidently the technology can support toll collection at 65 MPH without slowing. During the summertime, the busier toll barriers can be backed up for miles, wasting fuel and time for people who just want to travel through this state.

The Toronto area’s private 407 highway is completely automated, where cars without transponders pay by mail, as overhead cameras snap its license plate and send you a bill.

I could go on about the fact that the rest areas are just glorified food courts with toilets, and that no one’s eaten Roy Rogers in 20 years. I could mention the fact that there’s a cruel irony that the free I-90 in Pennsylvania has a smooth surface while the surface on the New York portion just after the tolls is ripped up like a Buffalo side road in the springtime. I could even mention the fact that other states, like the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts, sell toll-related sponsorships to private corporations to help fund Turnpike operations there, helping to keep tolls down.

I think people wouldn’t be so peeved about paying the tolls if the privilege of holding an EZ-Pass transponder conveyed an actual benefit in time and fuel.

Furthermore, the idiotic way in which the exits are numbered should go. It’s silly that we have exits like “48A” because the Thruway tacked on a Pembroke exit between Batavia and Transit Road. The mile markers on the Thruway tick down the mileage from the New York City line. The exit numbers should follow that same pattern. It’s done in other states and helps people keep track of their progress, and makes it easier to add and subtract exits from the roadway.  I once wrote to the Thruway about this, and they replied that this couldn’t be done because the road follows I-87 and I-90. Seems to me this isn’t an impediment to the mile markers following that change.

Good luck to you in your new position, and I hope to see some activity on the properties you own in Niagara Falls sooner rather than later.

With regards,


The Paradox of Austin

7 Apr

I made the mistake of flying into Austin, Texas the day before the South By South West (SXSW, or just South By, for those in the know) festival kicked off. On a normal day, the plane into Austin has two or three guitars stashed in an overhead bin. This day, every available nook and cranny was filled with instruments. The airport breezeway, baggage claim, and rental car pick up were similarly stuffed, with limp haired musicians and their tools of the trade. As I made my way north on I-35, ever so slowly in the regular bumper-to-bumper traffic, I was quietly thankful that I was leaving the self-imposed and never ending congestion of the “best” (read: progressive, fastest growing, most tolerant, Floridian if you will) city in Texas.

In Buffalo’s quest to regain its greatness, I have come to the conclusion that reputation and brand are more important than reality. Young, beautiful, well-educated people with disposable income follow reputation more than cold, statistical, monetary reality, despite the pleas of libertarians to the contrary. This does not mean such individuals do not make sound economic decisions; rather, I point to the nuance of this choice, that life is about more than taxes, and everyone decides for themselves what they are seeking from a hometown. Some (like corporations with a bottom line profit motive) do want the lowest taxes. Some want good weather. Some want family and history. Some want argument and the opportunity to make their community better. And if you want to live in a hip fun town but still be in Texas, you move to Austin.

Hopefully when you move to Austin, you find what you are looking for . . . because I never fully do on my visits. Is there a better example of reputation not meeting reality? I would say Austin’s national brand is a mix of music, youthful enthusiasm, progressive urban planning and politics, good jobs, and fun, mixed in a sauce of Texas sunshine and free-wheeling libertarian low taxes.

This reputation attracts thousands of people a year, making Austin the fastest growing metro in Texas, and (as a direct result of that fact) the best place for young adults to start a business in the country. But how does that reputation match with reality on the ground? Consider a few facts and comparisons:

– Austin’s fun music orientated reputation is based upon a PBS teevee show, a two week music festival, and six blocks of bars on Sixth Street. Six blocks. Hell, our bar district around Chippewa is almost six blocks if you are willing to walk up Franklin. Thursday in the Square and Rock the Harbor are not SX, and Chippewa is not Sixth Street. But that isn’t much infrastructure on Austin’s part for a national reputation. Imagine if we had a competent CVB that marketed Buffalo as the Festival Capital of America: the two previously mentioned events, plus the second largest Taste event in country, Allentown, Elmwood Arts, Chicken Wing Fest, Powder Keg, Dyngus Day, Citybration, a variety of ethnic festivals, just to get started.  

– Austin is a motorist’s dream, and a nightmare of progressive urban planning. Is there a sidewalk in all of Texas? Even I can tell the horrors of Texas planning: major highways all require a maze of one-way frontage roads, taking 6 line highways and turning them into 12 lane behemoths. Imagine Route 5 and Fuhrmann Boulevard, and extrapolate it to the 90, 190, 290 and 33. Obviously bad planning does not impede all growth.

These highways dominate the city along its spine, north to south. In the towns of Round Rock and Georgetown, sprawltopian suburbs that stretch Austin to nearly 50 miles long, there are obviously codes that state all commercial buildings must be clad in stone, like this beauty named “Old Town Square”:

No, that is not a Mexican-American War era barracks converted into chic loft apartments. Its a new build office park full of dentist offices and realty firms. You have to see it on Google maps to get the full effect of its position on I-35:

Faux stone, but real money – Austin in a nutshell. This treatment seeks to impersonate the actual old stone buildings from the nineteen century that still linger on Main Street in small central Texas towns. Note: Austin, Round Rock, and Georgetown are not these towns. I know architectural standards are seen nationally as an important tool to building pleasing urban areas. But merely covering a Walmart on a 12 lane highway with fake rock veneer doesn’t do much for me.

Austin is trying to get better, and just opened (while I was there) its first passenger light rail on the main cargo line that runs through town. Verdict and ridership from the first weekend? More bikers used the service than expected (39 – more than expected!) and 2900, on average, used the trains each day of the first week. Buffalo’s much maligned, and much shorter system, handles 23,000 passengers a day. If Buffalo leads anywhere on light rail coverage, new or not, there is a problem.

– Let’s once and for all debunk the myth of low tax states having blooming non-governmental industry, or an economy based more on the private sector. Buffalo is often criticized for having such a large proportion of its jobs be government ones. Fair enough. But is this what’s holding us back? Shouldn’t Austin, the poster child for fast private growth, beat our pants off? Hate to break the news but Austin’s economy is based on government jobs.

Austin has 22 entities that employ 2000 people or more. Of those 22, nine are government agencies (local, state, federal and school districts), two are non-profit health care conglomerates, three are higher education (Eds & Meds), and only eight are private companies.

How does Buffalo do? Checking the last Book of Lists, we have 27 entities that employ 2000 or more. Of those 27, six are government agencies, eight are healthcare, one is higher ed, and twelve are private companies. Looks about the same. Austin’s big private employers? Dell, IBM and AT&T. Buffalo’s? HSBC, M&T Bank, supermarkets, Moog and Dresser-Rand. They focus on technology, we focus on banking and manufacturing. But the percentage of the employment based on government largesse is strikingly similar. Total government spending, as a percentage of the economy, was 36% in 2006, and has grown since. If 40% of Buffalo’s economy isn’t government, that just means we don’t have our fair share. 

– To address taxes, I have to return to the highways. Rus Thompson would have an apoplectic fit if he had to drive on Austin’s highway system, and the BRO arm-chair planning crew may have a collective heart attack to see the Skyway-sized interchanges every couple miles. The man-made edifices that dominate the skyline by far belong to the ten lane highway interchanges, that rise ten or twenty stories, in the suburbs and downtown. Driving them can be disorientating (if you look down) as it feels like you are on a roller coaster. “They dream big here,” noted a friend of mine in the car. How to pay for all these many miles of brand new concrete? Tolls:

Since free I-35 is a parking lot at all hours of day and night (the high cost of free roads), driving the toll roads becomes a necessity at some point, especially going east-west. And not cheap tolls either – $0.75 every mile or two, and more if you get lost and have to loop around a couple times like me (you can go I35 North from TX 45, but not South? WTF?). Add in the 8.25% sales tax rate, and it starts to look annoyingly familiar.

– Our very own USRT guys would be proud of me – I was exploring the toll roads because I was headed to the Cedar Park Center to see the AHL Texas Stars play the San Antonio Rampage. The quality of the sports fan is a biased factor I use in judging a city. And here is perhaps where I found Austin’s greatest paradox of all: real hockey, in a real arena, with real hockey fans, in a fake suburb in central Texas.

The arena is in Cedar Park, in the equivalent (geographically and land use wise) of Hamburg’s Erie County Fairgrounds. The Texas Stars, obviously the farm team of Dallas, is in its first year as member of the now 29 team AHL. I wore my retro Sabres shirt to the game, just so everyone knew that I knew that Brett Hull’s foot was obviously in the crease. Interspersed in the crowd of Dallas and Texas jerseys were a smattering of Fliers and Rangers fans – perhaps the transplants explain my pleasant surprise later. I was expecting bad hockey, a bad atmosphere, and bad fans, like I used to get with the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL, who play at the Orleans Casino. Instead, I got a full house (announced crowd of over 6000), $2 beer and $1 hot dog night, a real scoreboard, and real fans who were loud. Sure, corner glass tickets were still available a couple days out. And yes, the guy behind me (acting as the “real” hockey fan) was explaining to his buddy how icing the puck is a great way to get rest to your players if they have been on the ice a while (if I have to explain that rule to you, never mind). But when the Stars scored in OT to win 4-3, the entire arena (your humble author included) stood straight up and screamed. You could almost forget you were in Texas.