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Transportation bill will help in WNY highway repairs

WASHINGTON – Western New York should see a boost in highway repairs thanks to the $305 billion, five-year transportation bill that the House passed Thursday and that should become law by the end of this week.

The bill would increase federal highway funding by about 15 percent, and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said that will mean that the state will be able to begin long-overdue highway repairs in Buffalo and elsewhere.

“A lot of the repairs which should have been done seven, eight or nine years ago will be able to be done now,” Higgins said.

But because of the current congressional ban on “earmarks” – or targeted local projects – it will be up to the state to decide exactly how to spend that increase in highway funds.

That’s a big change from the last highway bill Congress passed a decade ago, in which Higgins was able to target money for a road to Buffalo’s Outer Harbor, and for other projects.

Congress had been at a years-long stalemate over a permanent extension for that 2005 transportation bill, passing stopgap measures that did not increase funding.

 But the bill the House passed by a 359-65 margin will bring a total of $16.3 billion in highway and mass transit aid to New York State over five years, which is $1.5 billion more than it would have received without the increased funding.

Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, praised the fact that the bill targets funds to rural areas as well as urban mass transit systems, and that it is funded without an increase in the gasoline tax.

Meanwhile, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said he was pleased that the bill includes federal funding for bridges that are not on the federal highway system but which are in dire need of repair. There are 2,268 such bridges in upstate New York.

In addition, Schumer – who served on the House-Senate conference committee that drew up the final version of the bill – won passage of his proposal to improve rental car safety and a new program allowing transit systems to apply for funds to replace aging buses.

Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, said he was pleased that the bill streamlines regulatory requirements for transportation projects while giving state and local governments more flexibility for spending their federal highway dollars.

“This bipartisan legislation makes tremendous strides in modernizing America’s transportation policy, supports good-paying jobs, and implements vital reforms to jumpstart infrastructure projects in our region,” Collins said.

But the bill falls far short of the $1.25 trillion infrastructure bill Higgins has pushed to start a massive rebuild of the nation’s highways, transit systems and airports. He continues to argue that more spending is needed to repair a nation that used to have the world’s best infrastructure, but that no longer does.

Instead, he said, Congress passed a transportation bill that’s “pathetically weak.”