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Building the South Towns Connector would so benefit the region's economy and transportation network that it will be difficult for Washington and Albany to avoid funding it, according to preliminary findings of a state-sponsored study of the proposal.

A final draft is not due until February, but a number of local citizens serving as advisers to the study say the project continues to justify itself in terms of both economic development and traffic improvement. As a result, they expect the report to present a convincing case for the money needed to build the 7-mile stretch.

"The way it looks, it's becoming a necessity rather than just an economic development tool," said Richard E. Garman, president of Gateway Metroport and a South Towns Connector supporter.

"We think the cost will be offset by the improvements you don't have to make on other parts of the highway system," added Rodney C. Hensel, director of public affairs and regional relations for the Western New York Economic Development Corp.

For more than a year, the consulting firm of Andrews and Clark has studied the costs, benefits and feasibility of moving the current Route 5 away from the waterfront to a more inland route along the Buffalo River. Most officials agree the road would probably extend as far south as Mile Strip Road near the Ford Motor Co. plant, and possibly also turn east and hook into the Thruway and Route 219.

Members of the study's advisory committee and officials of the state Department of Transportation agree the road might be needed by 2000 or expensive new lanes will have to be added to the Thruway and Niagara Thruway.

Transportation officials also favor the project, although they continue to ask questions about financing. Robert J. Russell, DOT regional director, agrees that the project appears feasible. But he cautions that the study is a "broad test" that merely says no major obstacles preclude the idea.

Patricia O. Rehak, vice president of the Greater Buffalo Development Foundation and an advisory committee member, said she hopes the report's final draft also analyzes the cost of not building.

And while free trade and the "Toronto spillover" effect are seen as the main catalysts of the area economy, Mrs. Rehak added that the availability of uncluttered highways continues to attract firms to Buffalo.

Because most planning maps now have the South Towns hooking into Route 219 and linking Toronto and Buffalo with Washington and Baltimore, the idea becomes even more attractive.

The cost of building such a project, however, continues to be controversial. Russell said in September the highway might take 10 years just to get approved and cost $400 million or $500 million in 1990 dollars.

But he also said those figures represent the most expensive alternative possible, one that extends all the way to Camp Road in the Town of Hamburg.

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