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Southtowns Connector has backing of state DOT Leader says he is committed to project

The long-stalled Southtowns Connector project -- aimed at improving access to Buffalo's outer harbor and beyond -- has grabbed the attention of the state's top transportation official.

Thomas J. Madison, the state Department of Transportation's acting commissioner, said Thursday he's committed to getting the project into construction.

"We feel a sense of urgency about the Southtowns Connector at the highest levels of the DOT," Madison said. "We are committed to doing a project that improves access along that corridor, particularly to the outer harbor."

Madison's comments come as a $750 million private-public outer harbor development project hangs in the balance.

The Buffalo Lakefront Group, which proposes to invest nearly $400 million in private funds to create a mix of residential, recreational and entertainment sites off Fuhrmann Boulevard, views Southtowns Connector improvements essential to the project.

The development group, which last week announced the signing of a memorandum of intent to transform 120 acres of waterfront land, also stated the project will be scrapped if funding for the start of Southtowns Connector work is not in place by March 31, 2007.

The Lakefront Group is hitching its plan to the first phase of the Southtowns Connector project, a $32 million effort to that would greatly improve Fuhrmann Boulevard from the Coast Guard Station to Ohio Street. In addition to making Fuhrmann a three-lane road supporting two-way traffic, the first phase also would create two new intersections offering access off Route 5 to the boulevard.

To date, $22 million has been earmarked for the project, leaving a $10 million gap for the state to fill in.

During a visit to Buffalo on Thursday, Madison said the Lakefront Group's proposal "has the potential to become a reality," and the state has a key role to play.

"We don't want to be the wrench in the works that jams up that project," Madison said.

Carl Montante Jr., of Amherst's Uniland Development, a principal in the Lakefront development partnership, said he is encouraged by Madison's remarks.

"It's really nice to hear that the top DOT person recognizes and understands the economic benefits that Phase One of the Southtowns Connector project can mean to Buffalo," Montante said.

The Lakefront Group, the NFTA and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who has championed federal funding for the project, have been waging an aggressive lobbying effort regarding the Southtowns Connector.

The Lakefront Group is expected to sign a master development agreement with the NFTA by year's end, leading to the start of an environmental review of the project. The developers are hoping to begin construction of a $6 million, 360-slip marina in 2006, with work on more than 1,000 residences to begin in 2007.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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