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Lift bridge requires fast action, Higgins says

Rep. Brian M. Higgins wants to use some of the $30 million in federal and state money earmarked for the Southtowns Connector for design of a lift bridge over the Buffalo River to support the waterfront redevelopment plan.

The proposed lift bridge, which would connect Buffalo's inner and outer harbors from the foot of Main Street, is a key component in the plan the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. unveiled last week.

"The Southtowns Connector project in its first phase is all about better access to the outer harbor along Route 5 and improvements to Fuhrmann Boulevard," the Buffalo Democrat said. "The proposed bridge is also about improved access and will require Fuhrmann Boulevard improvements. I think we need to quickly re-evaluate how we spend the $30 million appropriated for Phase One in light of this new and compelling bridge idea."

The congressman took a related step Tuesday to fast-track the lift bridge by requesting $1.5 million in federal transportation money to kick off an environmental impact study.

By accelerating the bridge project into the design phase, it will have a much better chance of attracting federal money for construction, Higgins said.

"This bridge can't happen without funding in the next federal highway bill," said Higgins, who is a member of the House Transportation Committee. "If we can have this bridge project ready to go by 2010 when discussions begin, we can give it its very best shot."

The bridge project carries a price tag of between $50 million and $70 million. Higgins, who has long been a strong advocate of improving transportation links between downtown and the outer harbor, admitted it is unusual to contemplate design phase funding for a project barely a week after its unveiling and before it has received any agency or public review.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime project that, if done right, will change the way we think about Buffalo and its waterfront. It requires extraordinary attention," he said.

The bridge was depicted as a critical element of a harbor panel's ambitious $1.4 billion plan to harness the power of the proposed conversion of Memorial Auditorium to a Bass Pro Outdoor World store to make lower Main Street a place to live, work and play.

In addition to mixed-use development along Main Street from the Aud to HSBC Arena, the plan envisions housing and other development on the outer harbor, which would be made possible by the new bridge.

Higgins said the upgrades to Fuhrmann Boulevard planned for the first phase of the Southtowns Connector project, which will make it a two-way parkway, should proceed as planned. He noted that Fuhrmann will be a connecting point for the proposed bridge on its outer harbor end.

"The Fuhrmann Boulevard piece was valuable to the Southtowns Connector goals, but it's even more valuable as the bridge link," he said. "Our goals don't change with the bridge in the picture. If anything we have a chance to make a good plan a fantastic plan."

Higgins, along with Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles A. Schumer, both D-N.Y., secured about $22 million in federal funding to make the first portion of the roadway project a reality. He said he doesn't foresee any problems reassigning a portion of those dollars for the bridge design process.

The state Department of Transportation, which is contributing just under $10 million to the roadway project, has yet to be briefed on the harbor commission's Main Street proposal.

"Increasing access to the outer harbor is a top priority, which is why we're focusing on the Southtowns Connector, which is moving forward as we speak," said DOT spokeswoman Jennifer Post. "We plan to meet with the harbor development group and will be in a better position to understand and evaluate the bridge proposal."

Earlier this year, DOT Acting Commissioner Thomas J. Madison Jr. increased the state's financial participation in the Southtowns Connector project, citing its role as a linchpin in outer harbor development.

Buffalo Lakefront Development is proposing a $750 million mixed-use development on the outer harbor stretching from the Seaway Piers to the former Niagara Frontier Food Terminal site. The firm had demanded assurances of improved access before it moved ahead with its project. The developers, led by Amherst's Uniland Development Corp., had set a deadline of April 2007 to get confirmation that the first phase will happen.

Uniland spokesman Tom Widzinski said, "We are encouraged by Congressman Higgins' pursuit of bridge options. Ideally, the money allocated to phase one of the Southtowns Connector project would remain intact."

The developers had been hoping for a fairly quick upgrade to outer harbor access that will enable construction to start in 2007. Bridge construction is unlikely to begin until 2012 at the earliest.


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