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State’s bridge sweeteners entice Erie; Cattaraugus still to vote

State concessions prompted Erie County to agree Tuesday to take partial responsibility for a new bridge on Old Route 219 between Erie and Cattaraugus counties – but the Southern Tier county also must sign off on the deal.

The Cattaraugus County Legislature is expected to make that decision when it meets June 10, but a county spokesman refused to speculate on how the 21-member body will vote.

If the deal were to fall through, the current bridge would close and likely exist as an abandoned property while no replacement would be built, leaving local businesses fearing for their livelihood because it would be hard for shoppers to reach them.

The two counties have been squabbling with the state over who would pay maintenance costs for the new bridge. The latest sweeteners for Erie County, according to officials, were offers by the state Department of Transportation to pick up costs for the first 10 years of bridge-washing on the new span. The state also would pay for ordinary bridge maintenance costs that exceed the state’s estimated costs for keeping the bridge in shape over its 75-year lifespan.

The state’s offer to construct cable conduits along the bridge at an added cost of $30,000 to $50,000 were intended as an inducement for Cattaraugus County.

Those concessions come after the state had pledged to pick up the $20 million cost of constructing the replacement bridge, and after State Sens. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, and Catharine Young, R-Olean, had secured $300,000 in maintenance funding for about the first 24 years. The two counties had deemed that insufficient, fearing they’d be stuck with excess costs.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said Tuesday that his county’s concerns were mitigated by the state offer to provide additional maintenance funding in future years.

“The bridge over Cattaraugus Creek is a vital link between Erie and Cattaraugus counties, but is also a massive span that will require significant maintenance as it ages. This would put serious budgetary pressure on Erie County, which already maintains 2,400 lanes miles of roads and 290 bridges,” Poloncarz said in a prepared statement.

DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald said Tuesday the state had worked hard to find a way to make the new bridge a reality, recognizing its importance to the local businesses in both communities and the potential of bringing 300 construction jobs. She remained hopeful that the state has done enough to appease both counties.

“We are glad that Erie County has agreed to the state’s unprecedented offer to build a new bridge on Old Route 219 and are hopeful that Cattaraugus County will also do the same soon so that we can start construction and bring new, well-paying jobs to the area,” McDonald said.

Meanwhile, Erie County Legislature Chairman John Mills, who in April had encouraged Poloncarz to sign off on the state’s initial offer, Tuesday said he was pleased that a deal had finally been struck.

“The (agreement) signed between Erie County and New York State for the old 219 bridge is great news for the Town of Concord, Village of Springville and all of Erie County,” Mills said.

“As I stated in April when negotiations appeared to have reached an impasse, we must keep this bridge open to support these communities and businesses. Today’s announcement ensures that the bridge will be repaired, remain open and properly maintained into the future,” Mills added.

Both counties are required to approve the deal for it to take effect. Cattaraugus County Administrator James Searles declined to speak for his Legislature which, unlike Erie County’s, is required to sign off on the agreement. Because that Legislature won’t meet until June 10, the state set a June 12 deadline before the offer expires.

The state’s aim was to get Erie and Cattaraugus counties to take over maintenance of the massive structure, which is 652 feet from end to end, and 200 feet over the Zoar Valley below. It spans Cattaraugus Creek gorge.

However, neither county wanted that responsibility, arguing that the bridge would be too expensive for them to maintain.

State officials have argued that the old bridge is not on a state road and that, technically, the state has no responsibility for the structure.

The feud between Albany and the two counties had prompted concern among Springville-area business owners and commuters. Many have feared that the dispute could kill the bridge project altogether. State officials threatened as much, offering to divert the $20 million earmarked for the bridge to other state projects if the two counties refused to come around on plans to take over the bridge.

The bridge, built in 1953, is now overshadowed by the adjacent Route 219 Expressway bridge, which was completed in 2009.

However, it remains vital for local businesses along Old Route 219, such as the Lowe’s Home Improvement Center, Walmart, a micro hotel and several fast-food restaurants.