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Route 219 extension study put on hold State cites budget crisis as reason

New York State's budget crisis has dealt a crippling blow to hopes of extending Route 219 farther south. Plans for a key study of the long-awaited project are now on hold.

The state Department of Transportation has indefinitely postponed a $4 million to $6 million supplemental environmental impact statement required for the next leg of the road south from the Town of Ashford in Cattaraugus County.

"In effect, they've pushed everything into the future," said Paul Bishop, senior planner with the Cattaraugus County Department of Economic Development, Planning and Tourism. "And we were hoping for further economic development based on that road going through."

But the state says it now has no choice but to concentrate on maintaining what it has over planning for the future.

"Given the current economic conditions of the State of New York, we are spending our resources on maintaining the safety of roads and bridges," said DOT spokeswoman Jennifer Post. "Major project studies are being postponed until we get a new federal transportation bill and economic conditions in the state improve."

Planners and chamber of commerce types have long championed the road as a key economic development tool that would link Buffalo and Toronto to Washington, Baltimore and the port of Norfolk, Va. Others have envisioned Route 219 as part of a "Continental One" route linking Toronto all the way to Miami.

A new 4.2-mile segment of the road from Springville to south of Cattaraugus Creek is nearing completion after a more than 25-year hiatus in construction of the four-lane highway.

Though the state estimates it would eventually cost $700 million to extend the road all the way to I-86 at Salamanca (and then extend south through Pennsylvania to I-80), preliminary plans called for studies of several increments of the road.

Proponents were optimistic about at least reaching Seneca Nation of Indians territory at Salamanca, where separate negotiations with the sovereign nation would be necessary.

Now, news that the required environmental study has been shelved is unleashing stiff criticism from some stakeholders who are crying "politics."

"Once again we are relegated to the bottom of the heap by Albany," said State Sen. Catherine M. Young, R-Olean. "This would have done wonders for job development in Western New York and pumped new life into the economy. Now they're basically shutting it down."

Young said a 2005 agreement forged during the Pataki administration designated the Route 219 extension as a project of statewide significance and earmarked the necessary funding for the studies. She also said that while transportation agreements forged by the Legislature and governor traditionally allocated equal amounts to New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority and upstate roads and bridges, upstate is now receiving "the short end of the stick."

She said the upstate portion of a new transportation agreement was delayed a year and then was 30 percent less than what was directed to New York City's mass transit needs.

"This really is an outrage," she said. "It shows what happens when New York City controls every aspect of state government."

Young said the only way she sees to rectify the problem is to vote for legislators who are more sympathetic to the upstate plight when elections are held this fall.

Assemblyman Joseph Giglio, R-Gowanda, added similar sentiments by claiming Western New York ranks as an "unwanted stepchild every time something comes up with funding."

"We need to grow our way out of this mess we're in and that corridor is so important to trade," he said. "They don't seem to have any sense of urgency."

He also said he remains unconvinced that DOT has equally imposed the same moratorium on all development projects statewide.

DOT's Post said she did not know if any federal funds were earmarked for the study and what effect the department's decision has on that money. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who has been involved in the project, was unavailable to comment.

Not everyone is as crestfallen over the newest roadblock. Art Klein, a member of the Adirondack Mountain Club, noted that his organization had testified about the loss of wildlife habitat anticipated as a result of the road's extension. He said many landowners and homeowners in the road's path remain opposed, adding that he was never convinced that proper environmental procedures would be followed.

"I've been in on this from the first hearings, and it just always seemed as if there were some unseen hand pushing it along at an artificial pace," he said. "A lot of reviews were superficial."

Klein pointed to the major problems DOT encountered in building the current leg now nearing completion. An additional $23 million had to be added to the project after crews encountered unstable soil conditions that had been predicted in early studies.

Still, most of those associated with the process continue to voice disappointment over the latest setback. Dennis Eshbaugh, the Holiday Valley president who also leads the Route 219 Association, said the highway is considered key to development of the region.

He said DOT told his group that it will reduce its outside consulting expenses by $45 million statewide, but may not realize the economic benefits that will result from a new Route 219.

"Until this study is completed, nothing can move forward," he said. "They still have to make a long-term commitment to this thing now so we can hopefully have a long-term benefit."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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