Turning a 20-mile stretch of Route 219 into a four-lane highway is part of a project that has been talked about for more than 25 years to link Buffalo and Toronto with Washington, Baltimore and cities all the way to Miami.
State legislators revived the conversation Thursday, saying plans to extend Route 219 to I-86 at Salamanca is key to boosting the regional economy, important to the tourism industry and will create thousands of well-paying, permanent jobs.
"Revitalizing the economy is the most important task at hand," said State Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, who organized Thursday's round-table discussion, which was held in the Mahoney State Office Building on Court Street.
"Not only will an improved and expanded route connect our region with new trade markets and job opportunities, it will also mean safer roads for travelers and greater access to education and health care," she said.
In June 2010, as a result of the state's budget crisis, the state Department of Transportation indefinitely postponed a $4 million to $6 million supplemental environmental impact statement required for extension plans.
Leaders in banking, business, the medical field, education and tourism spoke Thursday about the importance of moving forward with the environmental study and completing the extension.
"Route 219 will add to your ability to get your product to market. It is a critical element in the whole equation for people to grow their businesses and for businesses to stay here," said James Manno, a vice president at Sonwil Distribution Center, located near Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
Alan Pero is the international supervisor for Laborers Local 17 in Lake View, which represents building technicians and equipment operators who build roads, bridges and buildings. He said, "There is a great need for the employment opportunities the project will bring."
Not only will the Route 219 extension be a boost to the local tourism industry, it also will provide a safe roadway for travelers, said Dennis Eshbaugh, president and chief executive officer of Holiday Valley Resort in Ellicottville.
"Snow makes for good skiing and challenging driving," he said.
There was optimism at the forum that the money for the environmental study will be released "in the next few months" and that the project to create the travel and trade corridor from Toronto to Miami actually will happen.
"I think it is more likely now than it has been in the past several years," said Meg Lauerman, project manager at Continental 1, an alliance of business, community and government leaders working to raise awareness and build support for the corridor.
She added the highway would lead to the creation of at least 7,000 permanent jobs in Western New York, according to a 2003 national study.
So far, a 30-mile stretch from the Thruway to just south of Springville has been completed. It includes a 4.2-mile stretch from Springville to Ashford in Cattaraugus County that was opened in November 2010, Lauerman said.
The 20-mile stretch of Route 219 that still needs to be completed is all in Cattaraugus County, she said.