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Updated: WNY highway project hits earmark roadblock

Skiers at Holiday Valley, just beyond the stretch of new highway.
Emma Jacobs
Skiers at Holiday Valley, just beyond the stretch of new highway.

We've received feedback on this story about the planned expansion of Route 219 in Cattaraugus County that had us take another look (originally posted on January 20, 2011).  We wanted to share the new details with you.

Our story suggested that earmarks were a key part of the holdup of Route 219 construction. That emphasis was misplaced.

The project is known regionally as a longtime beneficiary of earmark funds (and it's commonly referred to that way in regional media reports). But that turns out to be a little overblown. In following up with the state Department of Transportation, we learned that the bulk of the money for the project comes from the Federal Highway Administration's state matching fund (it's an 80-20 split, of FHA funds to NYS DOT funds).  NYS DOT wasn't able to come up with exact figures for how much of the road has been earmark-funded, but did tell us that the last section of construction, completed in November 2010, got just under 10 percent of its funding from multiple earmarks.

Two points are outstanding for Rt. 219 in the short term. The first is the need to do a comprehensive environmental impact study (EIS) for the second, un-built half of the expansion in western New York. The second point is that that study has not been funded, because the state DOT has put a hold on major infrastructure projects like 219, because of a lack of confidence in the ability to fund the total project in the current economic climate.

We bring this up because after our story aired, one of our sources, Meg Lauerman with Continential 1, contacted us to clarify that her project isn't looking for an earmark for the aforementioned EIS:

The Route 219 construction was not an earmark, it was funded through the NYSDOT budget. As I mentioned in the interview, my organization, Continental 1, does receive earmarked funding- a 1.5 M multi-year FHWA grant. Continental 1 is a not-for-profit organization. None of these funds went towards construction.

We have updated the text of our story slightly to reflect these changes. However, Congressman Tom Reed's explanation - that he plans to advocate for the project in committee - still appears to be an effort to earmark funds according to our expert, and we stick by our read of his remarks.Route 219
Every car that travels to the Holiday Valley ski resort in Western New York's Cattaraugus County travels up or down Route 219. On the mild start to a long, holiday weekend, with greeting card snow falling, the resort's director Dennis Eshbaugh, starts his tour in the crowded parking lot.

"From where we’re standing, right here, we’re actually about a quarter of a mile to intersection of Holiday Valley Road and 219 - the old 219.”

Because of that convenient location, Eshbaugh was drafted to lead the local Rt. 219 association, which is pushing for the roadway's expansion.

From Buffalo, to just about 17 miles north of the resort, Rt. 219 is a four lane highway. Below that, to Holiday Valley and south to Pennsylvania, it’s still a two lane road through the middle of every small town en route. There are stop lights, and drivers are throttled by 30 mph speed limits.

“This is a place that’s losing jobs and population because of the lack of the ability to come and go," says Meg Lauerman, who's involved in regional planning for this part of the state. She says the 40-odd-year-old highway project was finally moving again, until the state’s fiscal crisis worsened. At that time, plans to proceed with an environmental planning study needed for the next step of construction to proceed was halted.

“We have this huge project that’s so important to our area, that’s frozen right now,” Lauerman says. “Nothing has been moving forward for about six months.”

Is it or isn't it?
A federal legislator, Republican Congressman Tom Reed, whose district encompasses the remaining portion of 219, announced recently he wanted to help to bring the project to completion from his seat on the House Transportation Committee.

So what's the prognosis?

“I don’t see it going forward as an earmark,” he says.

Due to a whimsy of electoral law, Reed was also one of the few budget-slashing freshman congressmen to go to Washington early enough to vote for a Republican ban on earmarking money for hometown projects.

But it's not so simple.  When pressed, it's clear Reed’s position is more nuanced than just "no earmarks ever."

“It’s not going to come up [for funding] because it’s Tom Reed’s project on Rt. 219 in Cattaraugus County. It’s the Rt. 219 project and we will be a voice to say why this will be a project we should fund,” Reed says.

And that, says David Williams, of government watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, is an earmark.

Williams says members of congress can be on the record publicly for a project, but once they take that advocacy into committee in the budget process, it's an earmark.  So he says it's not surprising that, when asked, Reed's office sticks by the congressman's definition.

"We may see more and more of this, where it’s really tempting - especially a transportation project - because it’s such a visible form of government spending. They may either look the other way, or make an excuse as to why [the project] is not an earmark," Williams says (so far, so true).

Into the woods
Right now, the four lane section of Rt. 219 literally ends in the woods, just north of a town called Ashford. In the next town north, Springville, boosters say, business is booming, helped by quicker travel and the extra traffic on the four lane road.

Lauerman, who’s from Buffalo, works with a band of local Rt. 219 associations across New York and Pennsylvania. She wants to see the roadway extended beyond the Pennsylvania border. Her coalition wants to connect Buffalo straight to Miami, in a sort of second East Coast corridor they call “Continental1.”

Essentially, Lauerman wants the federal government to make the bet that if you build it, economic growth will come.  But brand new infrastucture is a tough sell to the Department of Transportation right now.

Case in point: political blogs took tea partier, Michelle Bachman to task last fall for saying she thought road infrastructure projects shouldn’t be considered earmarks - forgetting, of course, the most famous earmark of all: the bridge to nowhere.

Former WRVO/Central New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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