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USAir's continued delay in committing to a maintenance center at Greater Buffalo International Airport could ground the airport's expansion plans temporarily -- and cost the NFTA a lot of money.

While the financially troubled airline keeps its proposal for a major Buffalo facility on the back burner, the authority is ready to move on the airport's expansion, said Richard T. Swist, executive director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

The airline's facility, though, sits right in the middle of the expansion plan.

"We're in kind of a bind," he said. "We're faced with the potential loss to the community of a good economic entity vs something else the community needs -- a better airport."

The problem revolves around the current USAir maintenance facility between the east and west terminals in the building known as the American Airlines hangar. That building is scheduled to be acquired by the NFTA next year and demolished soon after to make way for a new connecting terminal between the current terminals.

That would provide new gate space for arriving and departing airplanes and allow renovation of the East and West terminals. USAir, according to planners, could maintain and even expand its Buffalo operation by moving to a new site off Cayuga Road.

With the airport project just about ready to begin, Swist said, delays mean losses of $625,000 per month because of inflation. Any lengthy delay means major financial losses, he said.

"We have to know something in two or three months," he said. "Our ability to move on this is very limited."

The NFTA announced in May that the airline selected Buffalo over Rochester and Ohio airports for a maintenance facility that would create 150 new jobs. Buffalo was picked, the authority said, because of the economic incentive package it developed and because of the large number of planes stored here each night.

But USAir began laying off employees and cutting back on expansion plans last summer and indicated in October that the facility was on hold. The national economy and rising jet fuel prices were cited as reasons for the go-slow approach.

No final decision has been reached, although the project is considered to be alive, said David H. Shipley, USAir's chief spokesman.

The NFTA, meanwhile, is expected to hire a construction management firm and architect next week for the $125 million project. The authority also is encountering delays in the Department of Environmental Conservation's review of the former Westinghouse Electric plant, slated for acquisition and demolition as part of the expansion project, Swist noted.

The facility would be bought through eminent domain from businessman Paul L. Snyder. But the NFTA wants to determine if it will inherit any serious pollution problems before signing the deed.

"We don't think the test results will be available until February, with no final report until May or June," Swist said.

While that delay is not helping progress, Swist said the problem is not as serious as the USAir situation because those aspects of the project involving Westinghouse are relatively far off on the schedule.

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