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Originally published by The Buffalo News
January 31, 2018
By Jerry Zremski

WASHINGTON – Like children in mid-December, members of Congress have wish lists around this time of the year. They wish that the presidential shopping list called the State of the Union address will include something for them.

And this year, eventually, it might.

President Trump’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night outlined the basics of a $1.5 trillion infrastructure program, and while it had few details, local lawmakers hope that it ultimately will result in big improvements for bridges, highways, water systems and other major projects in Western New York.

“President Trump’s plan will create jobs and provide a huge boost to our economy, and I look forward to working with the administration to make sure the needs of Western New York are met,” said Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, the most vocal of Trump’s local supporters.

Democrats were more circumspect, fearing that Trump will focus on public-private projects rather than the kind of federal spending that traditionally props up state and local efforts to repair and upgrade America’s infrastructure.

“The proposals we’ve seen from the administration rely on private companies or states and localities to put up the lion’s share of the money,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote in a Washington Post op-ed article Tuesday. “In turn, those entities would have to either charge local taxpayers new tolls or raise taxes and other fees to pay for the infrastructure.”

Trump will have to work with Congress, of course, to fund any sort of infrastructure plan, and there’s no guarantee of a deal.

Here are five projects that local lawmakers would like to see benefit from any new federal infrastructure effort:

Peace Bridge plaza – It might seem like déjà vu all over again, but both Collins and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, listed the plaza on the U.S. side of the Peace Bridge as a project that ought to benefit from any new federal infrastructure program.

It sometimes looks as if a demolition derby is about to break out on the current plaza, which is distinctly smaller and less modern than its counterpart on the Canadian side. A 10-year effort to expand the plaza collapsed amid community opposition in 2011, but Higgins said an infusion of federal money could lead to major improvements that would not necessarily encroach on the surrounding neighborhood on Buffalo’s West Side.

The Peace Bridge Authority already has $50 million set aside for possible improvements, and Higgins said that another $50 million in federal money could bring both the plaza and the technology used by federal agencies at the bridge into the modern era.

“There are glaring needs that need to be addressed and that could be done with a $100 million investment,” Higgins said.

DL&W Terminal – Schumer and Higgins have been pushing for a $16.3 million federal grant to rebuild and renew what once was the Delaware Lackawanna & Western Railroad terminal at the foot of Main Street in downtown Buffalo.

But that funding would come from an Obama-era program – Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER – that Trump has proposed ending. A new infrastructure bill would give Buffalo a second crack at a big federal investment into what local officials envision as a multimodal facility including a new Metro Rail stop and perhaps new retail businesses and housing.

A federal infrastructure bill could also include money to improve the existing 6.4-mile Metro Rail line and possibly to buy new rail cars, Higgins said.

What’s most enticing for local lawmakers is the notion of a thriving new project between Canalside and the Cobblestone District.

“The DL&W Terminal will build on the success Buffalo’s waterfront is experiencing,” Schumer said.

Deteriorating bridges – America hasn’t been spending enough money to maintain its bridges in recent years, and it shows.

Some 105 bridges in Higgins’ Buffalo district – or 9 percent of the total – are structurally deficient, according to a report released Tuesday by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. This includes prominent spans along the Kensington Expressway, Interstate 190 and U.S. Route 219.

The situation is even worse in Collins’ district, which stretches from Buffalo’s suburbs east toward Rochester, where 250 bridges, or 9.8 percent of the total, met the federal government’s definition of structurally deficient. The largest number were local bridges in rural areas.

In the Southern Tier district of Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, 310 bridges, or 9.9 percent of the total, had structural problems. Nearly half of those bridges are local, but several are along I-86.

Alison Premo Black, chief economist for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, suggested starting with fixing the heavily traveled bridges on interstate highways nationwide, which would make the nation’s most important roads more efficient. “An infrastructure package aimed at modernizing the interstate system would have short- and long-term positive effects on the U.S. economy,” she said.

Water systems – The ugly blackwater that appeared in the Niagara River below Niagara Falls last summer was sign of a largely hidden truth: America’s wastewater-treatment facilities are aging.

That’s why all three local members of the House said improvements to water systems would be an important component of any major federal infrastructure investment. Higgins said an infrastructure bill could tackle both the Niagara Falls wastewater-treatment plant and the issue of combined sewer overflows in Buffalo, which currently allow untreated storm water and sewage to flow into local waterways.

Reed mentioned the sewer systems around Chautauqua Lake and the completion of the water district in northern Chautauqua County as possible priorities on the western side of his district.

Rural broadband – Collins and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., don’t agree on much, but they do agree that something needs to be done about the fact that it’s difficult to get high-speed internet service in many rural stretches of Western New York.

Collins noted that 65 percent of his district still doesn’t have the broadband service that it needs, and Gillibrand said the infrastructure bill could help fix that problem all across the state.

“I believe getting access to high-speed internet is the same as getting access to electricity in the 1920s and 1930s was,” Gillibrand said, noting that broadband access is crucial to rural businesses and students alike. And if the private sector won’t provide that, “it’s something that the federal government should be supplying as a matter of right, not privilege,” she said.

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By no means are those the only projects that local lawmakers would like to see funded. Higgins said alternatives to the Skyway – subject of a state study now – should be examined. Collins would like to see improvements to the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, Tonawanda Creek Road in Clarence and Amherst, and Old Lake Shore Road in Hamburg, as well as more money for the Athol Springs breakwater in Hamburg. Reed is looking for more money to extend the four-lane section of Route 219.

Of course, Collins, Higgins and Reed are just three of 435 members of the House, and the local lawmakers won’t get everything on their wish lists. But to get a good share of the items, Reed said, he hopes that Trump’s infrastructure plan will look something like the one put forth by the House’s Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of which he is a co-chairman. That plan would include both the kind of public-private partnerships that Trump has suggested as well as more traditional infrastructure spending.

Building an infrastructure plan on just public-private partnerships would likely harm rural areas where investors would not make enough money, Reed said, adding, “That’s something I’m concerned about.”