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Officials compete for first wave of stimulus Erie, Niagara counties counting on $53 million

Two words describe the frenzy taking place at the State Capitol as mayors, county executives and other officials compete for a piece of the federal stimulus funds: food fight.

"The competition is fierce. Governments all across the state are hurting. They have deficits, and they have projects they want to move forward," said Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, who spent Tuesday in a series of meetings at the Capitol trying to win approval for his $157 million in wish-list projects for the city.

Just a week after President Obama signed the $787 billion stimulus bill, Albany has come under siege from localities wanting a portion of that money dedicated to infrastructure projects -- from highway improvements to new sewer systems. In most cases, though, the answer will be fairly simple: no.

Still, Erie and Niagara counties can count on several transportation projects totaling $53 million in this first wave.

They include the Youngmann Highway and Niagara Thruway interchange and ramp reconstruction, retaining wall replacements/corridor enhancements for the Kensington Expressway, Erie Canal Harbor street construction, adding four new streets, and approximately 42 new buses for NFTA.

The Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council approved these and other projects Monday for the new stimulus money.

Still, some local officials, notably Brown, were not happy that they didn't get as much from the first round as they might have hoped.

"We really don't think Buffalo got a fair share of that number," Brown said.

Local transportation officials said that other communities also were disappointed.

"Everybody had more needs than we had money for," said Timothy Trabold, principal transportation analyst with the regional transportation council for Erie and Niagara counties, one of 13 such groups around the state that are divvying up some of the new federal transportation dollars under a pre-existing formula set by Washington.

>DOT gets 54%

Of the $53 million earmarked by the regional group, 54 percent will go to state Department of Transportation projects in the area, and another 5 percent is heading to the New York State Thruway.

Erie County projects are getting 16 percent of the money, and 10 percent is headed to Niagara County. Most, if not all, of the approved projects, which are to be put out for competitive bidding by June, are expected to be funded when the infrastructure money starts flowing in the next week or so.

Much of the $53 million approved this week for Erie and Niagara counties is for maintenance and upkeep of existing roads and bridges. There will be road repaving work throughout the area, including along Grant Street, Amherst Street and Hertel Avenue in Buffalo, a roundabout at Grand Island Boulevard and Staley Road in Grand Island, and various repaving work throughout Niagara Falls. It is unclear how many jobs the projects will create.

>Housing aid

Meanwhile, federal housing officials announced Wednesday that the first round of stimulus aid will include more than $25 million to help Buffalo combat poverty and upgrade public housing developments.

The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority is in line to receive $14.5 million as part of the Recovery Act for long-term capital improvements. The allocation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also includes nearly $6.6 million for emergency shelter grants, funding that has historically assisted agencies like the City Mission.

The stimulus package also will increase Buffalo's federal block grant allocation by $4.3 million, money that is earmarked for programs that target poverty and blight.

City Finance Commissioner Janet Penksa said the federal stimulus money offers Buffalo an "incredible opportunity."

"It's no secret that we're third-poorest [large] city in the nation," said Penksa. "This gives us the ability to transform many aspects of the city."

Localities throughout the Buffalo area will share tens of millions of dollars in additional HUD funding to upgrade public housing, provide emergency shelter and fund community programs.

>Too many projects

In Albany, where the Paterson administration coordinates the infrastructure spending, more than 4,000 possible projects -- 200 new ones came in just this Tuesday -- costing $14 billion have been proposed both by the state and localities.

The problem?

There is only $4 billion for Albany to allocate in this round of projects.

"There's far more money requested than we have," said Timothy Gilchrist, the point person for Gov. David A. Paterson on the infrastructure stimulus spending.

Part of the problem has been heightened expectations. When negotiators in Washington first discussed a stimulus bill late last fall, signals were sent that the money pot would not only be big, but also left to the discretion of the states. But it didn't work out that way for much of the infrastructure pots because of fears that too many bridges-to-nowhere and pork barrel considerations would rule the process.

>Single topic

Infrastructure aid was the sole topic of a public meeting Paterson and legislative leaders held Wednesday, and questions were raised about the role of state legislators in helping to select projects.

Paterson sent conflicting signals on such roles, noting Washington did not want the process "politicized" while then saying rank-and-file lawmakers will have input.

Republicans are worried that funding percentages traditionally used when it comes to transportation spending could be broken by Paterson with the stimulus aid, meaning less money upstate.

The Paterson administration said those funding splits will be followed, but only if guarantees are made that the money can be spent on time.

The stimulus money for the state includes $4 billion for infrastructure. In that first round of transportation funding, Erie and Niagara counties got about 9 percent of the state's share by using a population-based formula, state officials said.

In the infrastructure pot is $1.12 billion for roads and bridges, 30 percent of which must go to urban areas.

>Mass transit money

Mass transit programs are in line for $1.3 billion in New York. Of the biggest pot from that fund, $900 million will be heading to New York City area transit systems; the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority is due to get $24 million under that pot, Gilchrist said. Another $258 million is coming to the state for transit rail track work; of that, $410,000 goes to Buffalo and the rest to New York City.

There are also other pots of stimulus funds for waste-water and drinking water programs, low-income home weatherization efforts, expanded housing programs and broadband Internet expansion. The package also includes $8 billion nationwide for high-speed rail efforts. To build a true, high-speed rail system from Manhattan to Buffalo would cost at least $10 billion, officials said.

For communities, the challenge is getting projects to fit in with the right funding pots. Brown, for example, wants money for waterfront development projects, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and enough funds to reopen all of Main Street to traffic.

The state will have some discretion allocating the money, Gilchrist said.

Brown acknowledged some ideas might not fit in available funding pots, such as money he wants for final work on the Darwin Martin House restoration.

Brown said that when he met with Paterson on Tuesday, he made the point that Buffalo is the nation's third-poorest city in need of special help. He said he came away encouraged that Paterson listened.

"At the same time, though, you can't pay the bills with a promise, meaning that while we feel good about what we heard -- we won't be completely comfortable until we receive the check," he said.

News Staff Reporter Brian Meyer contributed to this report.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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Local stimulus highlights

Transportation projects likely to be funded with $53 million in federal stimulus money:

*Repaving of Grant Street, Amherst Street, Hertel Avenue

*Repaving Maple Road, Niagara Falls Boulevard to Flynt and North Bailey from Maple to Romney

*Erie Canal Harbor street construction; adding four new streets

*Youngmann Highway/Niagara Thruway interchange, ramp reconstruction

*Sidewalk replacements around Buffalo

*Kensington Expressway, retaining wall replacements

*Approximately 42 new buses for NFTA

*Repaving, South Park, Bailey avenues to City Line

*Paving the Thruway at Exit 54

*Bridge work, Scajaquada Expressway/Delaware Avenue

Source: Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council

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