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We're just not (shovel) ready! Local leaders are disappointed that stimulus funds may not be available for some long-awaited projects

WASHINGTON -- The Buffalo region is poised to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus money for buildings at the University at Buffalo, buses for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and many routine projects.

But the state's preliminary list of eligible stimulus projects includes nothing for the Buffalo waterfront, nothing for Niagara Falls State Park, nothing for local housing -- and little that would transform the region.

Gov. David A. Paterson's office, in a set of charts sent to congressional offices last month, listed 1,900 "shovel ready" projects statewide that could be funded under the stimulus bill.

State officials say they will add other local projects later, but the early list includes few of the projects that Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and Erie County Executive Chris Collins are seeking.

"Quite frankly, this is a disappointing project list for the City of Buffalo," Brown said.

The biggest local project on the state list -- $76.3 million for a UB building at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus -- is one that the state previously promised to fund. And that's one of many examples where it appears the cash-strapped state is considering using federal stimulus money to pay for projects that it originally intended to fund itself.

Moreover, many of the most talked-about big local projects -- such as the removal of the Skyway or the building of a signature or companion bridge to the Peace Bridge -- aren't even eligible for stimulus funds because they are not considered "shovel-ready."

Instead, upwards of $242 million in stimulus funds could go for new buildings and renovation projects at UB. Other state schools could receive huge dollops of money as well.

Erie Community College's $20 million downtown expansion is on the list, as is$13 million for Niagara County Community College's culinary institute.

In total, colleges in New York's four westernmost counties, which host 7 percent of the state's population, are positioned to receive as much as 22 percent of the higher education construction funds designated for New York State.

But at the same time, the preliminary state list indicates that Erie and Niagara counties could get far less than their fair share of aid for highways, energy, sewer and water and community development projects.

"We're working with the state to bring attention to the disparities in each of those categories," said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, whose office did a separate analysis of the list that tracks a Buffalo News finding. "I'm going to be very frank with the administration in Albany about that."

State officials caution that the list, which was sent to local congressional offices last month, is not prioritized and is just the first attempt to identify projects across the state that might qualify for federal funding under the bill.

"It's really, really premature to speculate as to where the money is going," said Erin Duggan, a spokeswoman for Paterson. "We're talking to local governments about any shovel-ready projects that they might have, and they'll be added to the list for consideration."

To be sure, Western New York would benefit under the federal stimulus plan.

>State decisions

At least $787 million in projects could qualify for stimulus funding in Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, according to the state lists. That's 9.39 percent of the statewide total -- more than the region's fair share in comparison with its population.

But that figure is dramatically skewed by the hundreds of millions for local college construction. And while local leaders are reluctant to criticize those projects, they are gravely disappointed in what's been left off the list.

"My concern is that the minute the money goes from Washington to Albany, we're introducing a level of politics that may not work in the favor of Western New York," said Collins.

"The 'three men in the room' are all from downstate," he said, referring to the governor, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith.

State officials will decide how to spend upward of $90 billion in infrastructure spending because Congress stipulated that the stimulus bill would include no "earmarks" -- the sometimes scandalous projects directly inserted into countless spending bills by countless federal lawmakers over the years.

Many of the most anticipated local projects, such as building a signature or companion bridge to the Peace Bridge, never made it onto either the state list or the wish list that Collins and Brown recently submitted to Albany.

That's because they're nonstarters. Projects need to be ready for construction within 90 days in order to qualify for stimulus funds, and big Buffalo dreams like the replacement of the Skyway are nowhere near that time frame.

"I never was going to mention anything about the Peace Bridge or Skyway," Brown said. "I knew that the bill will say that projects have to be completely off the ground in 180 days, which was later shortened to 90 days."

Nevertheless, there are many huge local projects that Brown and other local leaders are pushing that were left off the state list.

Brown is seeking $40 million for Buffalo Sewer Authority improvements in Lackawanna and $25 million for a multimodal transportation center/parking garage at the medical campus.

Collins wants $72 million to expand the Erie County Holding Center and tens of millions more for park repairs and new public safety facilities.

And Higgins noted that the medical campus transportation center, the Lakeside Commerce Park and the Outer Harbor Parkway are shovel-ready -- but not on the state list.

"We're in the process of making it very clear to the [Paterson] administration that the list has to change dramatically," said Higgins, adding that he expects more local projects to be added to the list.

While the Buffalo area could benefit from $75 million in new buses for the NFTA, the state's transportation funding list includes only $36.67 million in local highway funding for Erie and Niagara counties. That's $20 million less than what Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties would be in line to receive, largely for improvements to Interstate 86.

Moreover, the state list of local highway projects includes many ongoing projects, such as $17.6 million in improvements to the Kensington Expressway. And the list only includes state projects, with no local priorities.

"It was very self-serving," Collins said of the state list.

Brown and Collins said they worry that New York will use much of the stimulus funding to patch the gaping holes in the state budget by substituting federal money for state funds.

That appears to be exactly what the state is suggesting in the case of the biggest Buffalo-area project, the UB Clinical and Translational Research Center at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, one of the linchpins of the area's hoped-for economic comeback.

>Fed cash, state pledges

The center, which will aim to quickly turn medical discoveries into treatments, will occupy five floors of a building UB will share with Kaleida Health.

But the state already appropriated money for it, said John DellaContrada, a UB spokesman.

"The state still has to bond it out," DellaContrada said. "That's why we put it on our list."

DellaContrada acknowledged that the huge amount of money going to UB, which includes funding for a renovated pharmacy school and student housing, is a mix of new projects and routine upkeep. Elevator repairs and fire alarm maintenance are also included as possible stimulus projects.

And Duggan, of the governor's office, conceded that some projects on the list are those the state would otherwise not be able to fund because of its budget crunch.

While the stimulus package includes huge chunks of money aimed at helping states with their Medicaid expenses and education costs, the infrastructure money in the stimulus bill is not intended to backstop shortfalls in state budgets, said Lawrence H. Summers, director of the National Economic Council in President Obama's administration.

"It's a concern" that states might use stimulus funds in that way rather than on new projects that would put more people to work, Summers said.

And it's just one of the concerns local leaders have about the state's initial attempt to identify stimulus projects across the state.

>Nothing for housing

While the state list identifies renewal projects in Jamestown and Westfield, and millions in housing money for Monroe and Westchester counties, there's nothing of the sort on the list for Buffalo.

"I'm very concerned about funding for some of the projects for our neighborhoods," Brown said, noting that the city has housing projects that would qualify as shovel-ready.

Duggan said, though, that it would "not be responsible" to look at the first state stimulus list on a region-by-region basis, because so many local projects are yet to be added to it.

And state officials can expect plenty of pressure from Buffalo, Washington and elsewhere to consider additional local projects.

"I am pushing hard to make sure that Western New York gets as much money as possible for good, worthy, shovel-ready projects that will create many hundreds of local jobs and prime the economic pump," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. "There is a preliminary list from the state that is by no means final."

Jon Sham of the News Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com.

***

$0

COMING UP EMPTY

But the state's preliminary list of eligible stimulus projects includes nothing for the Buffalo waterfront, local housing or the rebuilding of the Peace Bridge.

*

$ 254.9 million

COMING UP BIG

College and university projects are good to go ...

*Improvements at UB Medical Campus - $76.3 million

*Renovation of UB Kapoor Hall (Pharmacy School) - 64.5 million

*Student housing at UB - 60.5 million

*Renovation of Buffalo State College Science Building - 53.6 million

... while these projects are on the wish list

*Erie County Holding Center expansion - $72.0 million

*New countywide emergency command center - 55.0 million

*Renovations to Buffalo's Olmsted Parks - 49.2 million

*Buffalo Sewer Authority/Lackawanna facilities - 40.0 million

*Erie County law enforcement training center - 32.0 million

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