The state’s new budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year revives an old idea that eventually could reunite a historic East Side neighborhood torn apart by the 1950s construction of the Kensington Expressway.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo elicited a chorus of oohs and aahs during his appearance at the Buffalo Museum of Science on Wednesday as he unveiled a $6 million effort to study covering a three-quarter-mile stretch of the Kensington between Best and Ferry streets, transforming it into a tree-lined parkway.
“It was originally the Humboldt Parkway, it was beautiful, and it was part of the Olmsted design,” Cuomo said. “In the mid-’50s, we had a better idea and it turned out not to be a better idea, which was to move vehicles in and out of Buffalo faster by building a highway. This was not just in Buffalo; this was all over the United States.
“Most places have reversed their mistakes, and that’s what we are going to be doing here,” the governor said to cheers from the audience.
The state Department of Transportation has estimated that the cost could surpass $500 million to fully restore that stretch of the East Side neighborhood. A community group, Restore Our Community Coalition, has been advocating for a study since 2012.
In fact, state transportation planners were considering the idea back in 2009. The area’s transportation planning organization took initial steps then toward a $2 million study of the idea, which was proposed years before that by former State Sen. Antoine M. Thompson when he was the Masten District member of the Common Council.
Cuomo told The Buffalo News editorial board later Wednesday that it is possible for the state to come through with significant funding for the project.
“These transportation projects – you bond them, they’re done over time, and they’re doable,” he said.
Cuomo also reiterated plans to spend $30 million on turning the Scajaquada Expressway into an urban boulevard, with $54 million more to support the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. An additional $4 million will be spent for the next phase of returning cars to Main Street in downtown Buffalo.
An additional $4.5 million also is being invested in Niagara Falls State Park and two other state parks upstate.
“With these investments, Buffalo will really start to be restoring the very fabric and restoring community,” Cuomo said.
Other budget highlights outlined by the governor Wednesday included:
Don’t expect a Buffalo Billion, Part II, according to the governor.
Now that the state’s signature economic-development initiative for the Buffalo Niagara region is entering its fourth year, Cuomo said, the program already has had a big impact in turning around the region’s psyche and making outsiders take notice of the region’s investment boom. “The mood has changed, and now you can just do the normal, good work,” he said.
The Buffalo Billion projects – from the SolarCity solar panel factory in South Buffalo to the Conventus development on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and IBM Corp.’s efforts to create a data analytics center downtown – all are in their early stages and remain years away from creating the thousands of new jobs that those high-profile projects have promised.
But Cuomo said the Buffalo Billion already has given a huge jump start to the region’s long-sagging economy.
Just when some schools thought they had cleared the threat of a takeover, Cuomo said the state could withhold funding for struggling schools if he and the State Legislature cannot agree on which ones should be taken away from the Buffalo Public Schools.
The state receivership law, which went into effect last year, identified schools that failed to meet state standards for a certain number of years. The original list included 25 schools in Buffalo that faced a takeover if they failed to show improvement in a year or two.
But then in February – less than a year after the new law went into effect – the state Education Department announced that 70 schools originally targeted for a takeover would be removed from the list.
Cuomo said he disapproved of removing schools from the list and accused the Education Department of deliberately altering it to avoid any schools being taken over by an outside entity. “Nobody likes the idea of receivership,” he said, adding that if those schools are not put back on the receivership list, the state may withhold promised funding. “We have to restore it; otherwise, there will be no funding,” he said.
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia last week also expressed concerns that schools were taken off the list, but said the decision was driven by language in the legislation.
Cuomo described the failure to extend by five years a tuition plan for the State University of New York system as “irrational,” pinning the problem on legislators who did not want to be perceived in an election year as having raised tuition.
Legislation known as NYSUNY 2020 allowed the system to raise tuition by $300 a year from 2011 to 2016 – bringing budgeting predictability to students and parents, as well as to state-operated campuses such as the University at Buffalo and SUNY Buffalo State.
“What happened was irrational,” Cuomo told The News.
“The Legislature did not want to renew rational tuition. If they don’t renew rational tuition, there is no tuition increase this year.”
The governor said the predictable tuition issue likely will be on the table again next year. Instead of pushing to extend it another five years, however, Cuomo said, he would take a different approach.
“Learning what we learned this year, I would say renew it next year with no term,” the governor added.
In a familiar theme, the governor said taxes are lower for all New Yorkers since he took office in January 2011.
But he said the biggest issue remaining is how to reduce local property taxes. Residents pay about four times the amount in property taxes that they do in state taxes, he said.
The tax cap has helped to limit local taxes, Cuomo said.
“Reduce local property taxes – just tell me how,” he said, “because that is the single biggest issue for the state.”
He had a message for localities looking for extra money from the state: don’t count on it. Giving more state aid to school districts, which generally are higher than municipal taxes, would be missing the point, he said.
“You have to stop or reduce the growth of your expenses,” Cuomo said.
“Part of it is, you can’t sign a contract with your teachers union that you can’t afford.”
The state budget should put an end to the cash squeeze that caused the state to fall behind on its payments to vendors working on the SolarCity solar panel factory on South Park Avenue late last year and early this year.
The budget includes $685 million in funding for “high-technology” projects in Erie and Chautauqua counties, including $200 million for the Athenex pharmaceuticals plant in Dunkirk.
The rest of the funding – $485 million – is targeted for the SolarCity plant, which is being built with $750 million in promised state funding.
“That is putting the money through, so you don’t have any vendor problems,” Cuomo said. “That is appropriating the funding.”
Nearly 200 construction workers on the SolarCity project were briefly laid off in late February after a “cash-flow problem” prevented the state from paying more than $82 million to contractors for work that had been done on the solar panel factory.
Last month, Cuomo described the late payments as a foul-up that had been corrected and would not happen again.
News Staff Reporters Tiffany Lankes, Barbara O’Brien, David Robinson, Mark Sommer and Jay Tokasz contributed to this report. email: email@example.com