The WNY Regional Economic Development Council’s 5-year plan highlighted our region’s recognition that trade – particularly with a rapidly-growing market in Toronto and Southern Ontario – will be the catalyst for our economic growth. The Buffalo Niagara region’s strategic border location is an asset that offers this end of New York State great opportunity for private investment and job creation. Through the Regional Council process, we have engaged stakeholders locally and nationally in the discussion on how to best use and, equally as importantly, present our resources.

Governor Cuomo’s approach to economic development has been helpful in that regard. Processes that have been implemented into the economic development delivery system, dedication of resources to business attraction and regionally-driven agendas are gaining attention and truly starting to paint a picture of an environment in New York State that is “Open for Business.” We believe it is incumbent on us as a region – public and private sectors working together – to enhance and expand that message to the global trade community.

One recommendation that continues to surface is greater marketing of our regional assets related to trade. But the consensus has been that the large global shippers who could invest heavily in our region know far more about the cost and time advantages of using Buffalo Niagara for trade than we do. So regional stakeholders have set out to learn from name-brand shipping companies what their thoughts are on the region. After a series of outreaches, we’ve learned that much of their view is based on perception.

Which is an obstacle.

The thickness of our CanAm border is often named as a roadblock. When we tell them that much progress is being made at the border crossings, they point to articles about injunctions and lawsuits. When we say that we have distinct advantages that make shipping into, through and out of New York competitive, and that New York is the optimal way to get product from East Coast ports to Canada, they point to a proposed 45% Thruway toll increase.

So are we “Open for business?” In order to make that slogan stick, we need to implement policy that backs it up.

But the business community gets it. We understand fully the need for infrastructure funding. That’s why in June the Partnership recommended to the Thruway Authority that before any increase in tolls can be considered, it is imperative that the Authority be divested of any financial responsibilities it has that are not related to the roadway. The State Comptroller reports that the Thruway Authority has spent more than $1.1 billion in the last decade to support the canal system. Had those funds been put into the roadway, what conversation would we be having today?

Tolls can be a competitive disadvantage to trade, but as we know a necessary evil to ensure the resources necessary to maintain our infrastructure. The first step should be an audit of the Thruway Authority’s financial responsibilities, and then dedication of the revenues collected from Thruway tolls wholly to the roadway.

Since an audit has not been done, since toll revenues continue to be diverted away from their intended purpose, and since a toll increase would heighten negative perceptions about doing business in New York State at a time when we have advantage, opportunity and momentum, the Partnership’s 2,000 employer members oppose the proposed Thruway toll increase. If we are to fulfill the initiatives set out in Western New York’s award-winning 5-year plan, this toll increase cannot happen.