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Review of cost overruns at RiverBend should follow release of final funding

Members of the Public Authorities Control Board are scheduled to meet today with a subject critical to Western New York on its agenda: approving the final funding for Buffalo’s RiverBend project.

The authority’s three key members, representing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the leaders of the Senate and Assembly, must agree unanimously for the final $485 million needed to complete this transformative project to be delivered. Fortunately, that’s what they are expected to do.

However, that is not to say that there are no questions that need to be answered. With the $50 million cost overrun reported in Tuesday’s Buffalo News, taxpayers need to know exactly what happened and, just as important, be reassured that steps will be taken to prevent similar occurrences in future state projects.

Construction on the project began in 2014 and is leading toward the establishment of the largest solar manufacturing plant in the Western Hemisphere. Its development replicates the pattern that helped to create a high-tech economy in the Albany area: the state builds a state-of-the art facility and leases it to a company whose product and presence will help to spark the establishment of a modern and durable industry. In RiverBend’s case, the industry is solar panels and the company is SolarCity.

The project stands to become a leading component of the 21st century economy in Western New York. It is expected to produce spinoff industries, including companies that will supply the factory. The project also includes a research and development arm that will help to ensure that the plant and its products will remain cutting edge.

With hundreds of millions of dollars already spent, it apparently became clear to the Public Authorities Control Board that the remaining money must be approved. It cannot be that such a high-tech plant is left unfinished, to be overtaken by weeds.

Nevertheless, the cost overruns are significant and need to be examined. It is possible, as a spokesman for SUNY Polytechnic said, that problems such as those at the RiverBend site are not uncommon among large, urban construction projects.

For example, once excavation began at RiverBend, crews unearthed an old railroad boxcar. Radioactive materials turned up in the soil, with each bucket requiring testing. Unmarked utilities and failing retaining walls were turned up, also complicating the construction work.

Still, even if those are the reasons for the cost overruns, the Department of Environmental Conservation had declared the site to be “shovel-ready” in 2007, during the administration of then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer. How did that happen? Was there simply a $50 million oversight, or were corners cut for some reason? Is there a chronic problem with the DEC’s supervision of brownfield projects? Or are there other reasons for the cost overrun?

Given the number of brownfields in the state and their potential for economic development, it is important to understand what happened at RiverBend and how to prevent such problems from recurring in future projects.

In the meantime, the Public Authorities Control Board seems to have realized there is no plausible alternative to finishing the job, and delay would do little more than drive the costs up even more. Taxpayers have had enough of that.