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New federal transportation bill bodes well for Western New York and all of upstate

Motorists around Western New York should be pleased about the increase in highway repairs as a result of the $305 billion five-year transportation bill recently passed by the House and signed into law by President Obama.

This is a region whose infrastructure is continually compromised by severe weather patterns, the latest shockingly warm weather notwithstanding.

The bill, as reported, would increase federal highway funding by about 15 percent. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, indicated that it will mean the state will be able to begin those long-overdue repairs here and elsewhere.

The state will have the power to decide how to spend the increase in highway funds. There is a congressional ban on “earmarks” as targeted local projects. One could argue this is not a good thing, since it was the ability to target funds to Buffalo’s Outer Harbor and other projects that allowed the congressman to get the ball rolling on the revitalization now underway.

The bill passed by the House, by a 359-65 margin, will bring a total of $16.3 billion in highway and mass transit aid to New York State over five years. That number is $1.5 billion “more than it would have received without the increased funding.”

As Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, pointed out in The News article, the bill targets funds to rural areas in addition to urban, and it is funded without an increase in the gasoline tax. That offers good reason for optimism.

In addition, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., likes that the bill includes federal funding for bridges that are not on the federal highway system but also in need of repair; 2,268 off them are in upstate New York.

The senior senator served on the House-Senate conference committee that worked out the final version of the bill. As such, he was able to deliver a couple of important items – passage of his proposal to improve rental car safety and a new program allowing transit systems to apply for funds to replace aging buses.

And Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, makes a good point that the bill streamlines regulatory requirements for transportation projects while at the same time giving state and local governments more flexibility for spending their federal highway dollars. The obligation will be to spend the money well and where it counts.

Speaking of such, Higgins continues to push a massive rebuild of the nation’s highways, transit systems and airports. But his $1.25 trillion infrastructure bill has not gained traction.

The congressman may be onto something in terms of starting a national debate, as he put it in 2012. Back then, he told The News: “It’s rebuilding this country as we’ve rebuilt other countries – Iraq and Afghanistan – in recent years.”

Politically and practically, $1.25 trillion is a truly heavy lift, but it’s worth starting the discussion about necessary critical repairs to this nation’s fast deteriorating infrastructure.