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Building a new access road from the Niagara Thruway through the former Republic Steel plant site in South Buffalo could forge a key link in Western New York's bid for the nation's "NAFTA Highway" designation, city officials told state lawmakers Wednesday.

Mayor Masiello asked the Western New York delegation to Albany for $30 million in aid, including $10 million for the access road. The remaining $20 million would help develop three ice rinks and other elements of the city's Cobblestone District.

City planners believe the access road should connect to the Niagara Thruway near Bailey Avenue and head southwest over the abandoned Seneca Rail line, opening up more than 1,200 acres of former industrial land adjacent to the Tifft Farm nature preserve.

But the entire region would benefit once the road connects with other arterial highways going south, including the long-proposed "Southtowns Connector," they claim. That's because the highway could serve as Western New York's bid as the nation's NAFTA highway corridor.

"We're calling it Buffalo's NAFTA connection," Director of Planning Kevin T. Greiner said. "With this road, we're positioning Buffalo as a region, with the major border crossing with Canada. . . . If you attract the designation as the NAFTA Highway, all sorts of other transportation improvements will come into play," he said.

The reactions from state legislators ranged from enthusiastic to cautious.

". . . It's the most exciting proposal I've seen in 31 years in public office," Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve said, referring to the Cobblestone District.

However, Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, strongly emphasized that the governor and state senators will have to agree to any funding requests from Buffalo.

Schimminger said the city's request is, "very much on the radar," but he added that, in order for the city to get the money it seeks, "It's going to take three to tango," referring to Gov. Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, R-Brunswick, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat from Manhattan.

In South Buffalo, city planners say, the access road could help to develop such diverse uses as an industrial park with rail and water connections on the former Republic Steel site, and an 18-hole golf course on landfills between Tifft and Marilla streets.

The road's first phase would span the Buffalo River, opening up the former steel plant and other remote spots on the river, while later additions would connect with lands south and east of Tifft Farm along one of the busiest rail corridors in the nation, according to city officials.

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