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Feud with Albany could kill Cattaraugus’ Route 219 bridge project

Springville area motorists received terrific news a few weeks ago when legislators put $20 million in the state budget for a new bridge to carry Old Route 219 over the Cattaraugus Creek gorge.

Local businesses suffered when the current but creaky span between Erie and Cattaraugus counties closed for repairs in 2012. Chamber of Commerce officials say lingering questions over the bridge’s future also caused nearby chain restaurants to shutter while new development was stymied.

But such a massive structure – 652 feet from end to end, and 200 feet over the Zoar Valley below – costs a lot to maintain.

Now, because Erie and Cattaraugus counties are feuding with Albany over who will pay for the bridge’s upkeep over its projected 75-year life span, the locals now fear the dispute could kill the project altogether.

Their concern is well placed, said State Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan. State officials have threatened to divert the $20 million earmarked for the bridge to other projects around the state if the dispute isn’t settled within the next few days.

“I don’t think anyone down there with these concerns is overstating the significance of that bridge and what might happen if this is not worked out,” the Elma Republican said.

Nobody questions the need to replace the current span over the deep chasm. Built in 1953, it is now overshadowed by the adjacent Route 219 Expressway bridge completed in 2009.

But the old bridge still maintains a vital link to major businesses along Old Route 219 like Lowe’s Home Improvement Center, Walmart, a Microtel hotel and several fast-food restaurants, as well as to downtown Springville.

Mayor William Krebs thinks state and county officials sparring over future maintenance forget that planners call Springville a “regional service area” with a hospital, stores, restaurants, churches and big retailers. And he pointed out that 60 percent of Ellicottville-bound tourists travel through the area, with traffic evenly divided over the old bridge and the new four-lane highway span.

“That’s over 1 million visitors a year,” he said. “It makes no sense to divert $20 million in transportation infrastructure improvements because county and state officials cannot agree on fair maintenance costs extending over decades.

“I just find that unacceptable,” he added.

Nevertheless, financial concerns as well as the law are guiding Erie and Cattaraugus counties as they wrangle with New York State over who will pay for future upkeep. Gallivan and Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, were able to put $300,000 in escrow for repairs in the next 22 years.

But the two counties countered with a request for just over $1 million annually for 75 years.

The significant difference reflects the divide both sides must negotiate if the project and its 280 construction jobs are to begin next month as scheduled.

Cattaraugus County Administrator John Searles said the proposed span dwarfs anything on the current roster of bridges maintained by either county. Cattaraugus, he said, can’t afford it.

Maintenance costs will prove relatively minimal in the new span’s first years, he explained, but will spiral a quarter century from now. Expenses will multiply even more 50 years from now, and nobody in local government wants to assume such costs.

“This bridge in no way, shape or form compares with anything in our inventory,” Searles said.

“The issue is: Who has the best capacity to maintain it? Our stance is the state.”

In addition, fears of liability for such a massive asset hound self-insured Cattaraugus County.

“For us, that is a huge unknown,” Searles said. “We have absolutely no experience in dealing with something like this.”

Even a major county like Erie wants no part of what is proposed. As far back as early March, County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said the state’s insistence on a transfer to the counties amounted to another unwanted state mandate.

“This proposed transfer would impose unsustainable, multimillion-dollar future repair costs on both counties and would force our counties to maintain a 652-foot-long bridge that neither county has the experience or equipment to maintain,” he said. “Past transfers of roads and other infrastructure in order to shed responsibility from other governments to Erie County have resulted in Erie County having more miles of roads to maintain than any other county in New York, along with 283 bridges already in our inventory.”

Susan Surdej, Buffalo spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, did not return a call seeking comment.

Krebs said he harbors no sympathy for either the state or the counties. Erie County is ignoring the need for the bridge project to sustain sales tax revenue from Old Route 219 businesses, he said, while the state has proven “shortsighted” in failing to negotiate a compromise.

“The dispute is a slap in the face to regional economic development,” he said. “The state and counties simply need to agree on a reasonable maintenance funding.”

Gallivan said he and Young continue to mediate the dispute.

He was surprised to learn of the ownership concerns complicating such a budget victory. Both sides need to compromise on what will be needed for future maintenance, he said, though the fine points of the law regarding maintenance responsibility may ultimately dictate a final outcome.

“I don’t care who owns the bridge,” Gallivan said, “but it would cripple that community to not have a new bridge.”

He said he and Young are monitoring Albany’s threat to cancel the project.

“Cathy and I will work to prevent it, but they could do it,” he said. “It’s a real fear.”

Krebs, meanwhile, says he’s tired of residents of both sides of Cattaraugus Creek being used as “pawns.”

“Either the DOT or the Governor’s Office should sit down with the county executive,” he said, “and do what’s best for the area.”