Prospects for quick construction of a $130 million federal courthouse in Buffalo improved dramatically Tuesday, as House leaders unexpectedly decided to include $280.87 million for such projects in a must-pass spending bill that Congress will consider in early February.
As a result, construction of the building hailed as a cornerstone of downtown Buffalo's redevelopment -- could start as early as March, said U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny. "We're cautiously optimistic," Skretny said. "I think it's really good news."
While the spending bill does not target funding to any one courthouse, the Buffalo project is the U.S. judiciary's top priority. That's why Skretny and local members of Congress said construction of the much-delayed project now looks more likely than it ever had before.
"This federal funding allocation for courthouses should be a green light . . . to begin construction of the Buffalo courthouse," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.
The bill still has to pass both houses of Congress, and under its language, the General Services Administration which oversees federal construction will decide how the money is spent.
The agency typically has followed the judiciary's priority list, and both Skretny and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said they spoke with agency officials Tuesday and picked up positive signs about the agency's funding the Buffalo project.
"I am very confident that the bill will include that $280 million for courthouse construction, and I am very confident that Buffalo will get its money," Higgins said.
The House Appropriations Committee, which is drawing up the spending bill, included the courthouse money in its first draft of the bill.
The legislation doesn't specifically target funding for Buffalo, in part because the new Democratic Congress vowed to include no such "earmarks" in the spending bill, which will fund the federal government through Sept. 30.
Noting, though, that last year's Republican House was on track to include no courthouse money in the bill, congressional aides said the $280 million was a sign of the new clout that congressional Democrats such as Schumer and Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, have in the new Democratic Congress.
"It is imperative that GSA prioritize courthouse construction funds to build the city and the citizens of Buffalo a courthouse they deserve," Slaughter said.
Previously, courthouse construction nationwide had been delayed because of a dispute between the GSA and the judiciary over how much the courts should pay for rent. But that's not expected to be an obstacle this time, said Richard Carelli, spokesman for the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts.
"We know that our No. 1 priority for 2007 is Buffalo," he said. "We also know that Buffalo needs about $130 million. Whether Buffalo gets all of that money is up to the GSA."
Higgins said Anthony Costa, deputy commissioner of the GSA's Public Buildings Service, told him the agency may fund the Buffalo project over two years.
Agency officials did not respond to a request to comment. But just to make sure the GSA doesn't veer from the judiciary's priority list, Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, Thursday wrote a letter to the agency's administrator to press for the funding.
"This funding is of utmost importance," said the letter, which Higgins and Slaughter also signed.