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TIME FOR THE SENATE TO CHIP IN

Almost lost in the economic chatter over casinos and a Center for Excellence in Bioinformatics in Western New York is a serious bid to make Buffalo a rail-freight hub by designating it an outpost of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.

It's a $6 million project, in which CSX Transportation plans to transform its intermodal yard off William Street into an "inland port" that would be used to break down giant shipping containers into smaller loads for trucking to areas such as Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Ontario.

In addition to its merits, which are substantial, the project is linked to the settlement of a lawsuit brought by the railroads against the state. The lawsuit, which the state was all but certain to lose, claimed that New York unfairly taxes railroad property.

In the settlement, which is yet to be formalized, the state approved a gradual change in railroad property assessments and provided transition aid to school districts and local governments, whose revenues will suffer as a result of the reform. In exchange, CSX pledged to go ahead with the inland port project.

CSX says it is committed to the project, but accomplishing it quickly requires $3 million in state assistance. Speed is essential, CSX officials say, because of a competing plan to create a similar inland port in Pittsburgh.

So far, the state has come up with a third of that amount, all of it through the Assembly, where Majority Leader Paul Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, with assistance from Speaker Sheldon Silver, dug into a pot of transportation funding allotted to the chamber. The Senate and governor have similar funds but, thus far, they haven't marked any of it for Buffalo's inland port project. They should, especially the Senate, which needs to do at least as much as the Assembly has done on this project.

It is not terribly surprising that the Assembly has led the way. With Tokasz occupying the Assembly's No. 2 leadership position, it would be odd if that chamber didn't demonstrate a special affinity for Western New York.

Still, this region sends a healthy Republican delegation to the GOP-controlled Senate, and it remains an influential upstate power base, despite its population loss. It would do Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno no harm to claim a share of the bragging rights for creating a job-producing rail hub here.

Expectations are that this inland port will create, directly or indirectly, nearly 500 new jobs in its first year and more than 1,000 within a decade. It's the kind of economic development this city needs. If neither Bruno nor Gov. George Pataki -- who has demonstrated a keen interest in Western New York in recent years -- comes up with the additional $2 million, Tokasz has pledged to find it. That's good news for the region, but better still would be for the Senate to join the Assembly and the governor in making a high-profile commitment to the economic resurgence of an area that should be an economic powerhouse for this state.

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