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Paths diverse on infrastructure

In any election season, roads can turn into a bumpy patch -- politically speaking.

This year, the two candidates for the office of Erie County executive are sparring over basic, bread-and-butter issues related to the county's roads and bridges:

*What kind of shape are they in right now?

*What priority are road repairs being given in the county's spending plan?

*Which roads are the worst, and why are some roads being repaired and others not?

Read on for the views on the subject by incumbent Republican Chris Collins and Democratic challenger Mark C. Poloncarz.

>Chris Collins

Collins believes that the county's 600 bridges and 1,200 miles of roads are in the "best shape they've been in a very long time," but he has a plan to do more.

The Republican says he wants to continue to use any surplus county money at the end of each year for infrastructure projects, including roads and bridges.

Collins estimates that the county needs about $72 million on hand for a "rainy day" fund, including 5 percent of the total budget, as required by the County Charter, and an extra amount to satisfy credit-rating agencies.

Anything above and beyond that amount, he said, will be used to pay cash for projects such as rebuilding roads or other infrastructure.

"I want to put the money to work," Collins said.

Collins also points to a road fund in the county's operating budget that has grown from $5.9 million the year he took office to $12.8 million this year.

"Every bridge that was closed when I came into office has reopened," he said.

Collins said his administration has used road and bridge ratings, as well as traffic counts, to prioritize which projects should be done next.

This year, he said, the county has had extra cash to start several large projects, including the reconstruction of a portion of Eden-Evans Center Road and work on four bridges in Lancaster.

"We'll see in March how we close out this year," he said. "Whatever that number is -- $5 million, $8 million, $10 million -- I would propose using that for additional infrastructure work."

>Mark C. Poloncarz

Poloncarz, who currently holds the office of county comptroller, is blunt when assessing the state of Erie County's roads.

"County roads are in generally poor shape. County bridges are in poor shape," he said.

The Democrat, who lives in North Buffalo, said his campaign for county executive has taken him all over the county, from inner-ring suburbs to rural areas. In his travels, roads that struck him as particularly poor included George Urban Boulevard and Eden-Evans Center Road.

Poloncarz said the timing of repairs to both of those major roadways -- in the last few months -- strikes him as politically motivated.

"Eden-Evans Center Road wasn't going to be fixed [right away]. Then, with election season, all of a sudden he's fixing it," he said of Collins. "We did a press conference [in Cheektowaga] showing the difference between a state road, Harlem Road, and George Urban, a county road. After we did that, Mr. Collins sent out a crew to repair parts of George Urban."

He also said 40 county bridges are in very poor shape.

Poloncarz said that his plan for county roads and bridges, if he wins in November, will begin with a comprehensive assessment of all county properties by county employees, including those from the Highway and Environment and Planning departments.

"We're going to look at the road structures and bridge structures we have," he said. "We're going to figure out what we need to do to fix them. We're going to truly prioritize."

Poloncarz said that while the county always has a "to-do" list of projects and repairs that can creep into the $100 million range, it must choose carefully where to spend its time and money.

"My question is, why are we choosing certain projects?" he asked.

Next: Parks and beaches;