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Local leaders praise $500 million plan to keep up Buffalo’s momentum

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo unveiled a $500 million next phase of his Buffalo Billion economic development program, promising hundreds of millions of dollars for projects intended to spur development in downtown Buffalo, on the East Side, in Lackawanna and Niagara Falls.

Cuomo’s most far-reaching proposal may be the state’s embrace – for the first time – of extending the Metro Rail north to the University at Buffalo campus in Amherst and south to the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Terminal near the KeyBank Center in downtown Buffalo. As the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority looks to recommend a specific plan to federal authorities early in the new year, Cuomo’s advocacy for the project could eventually provide crucial local financing to a project requiring Washington’s approval.

Among two dozen initiatives, Cuomo also proposed buying a swath of downtown Niagara Falls to spur redevelopment; buying and making "shovel ready" up to 1,000 acres of the former Bethlehem Steel site in Lackawanna; building a park on the Outer Harbor and reclaiming 135,000 acres of the Niagara Gorge; and building a National Comedy Center in Jamestown.

Cuomo outlined the proposals in Amherst Monday during his annual State of the State address – presented this year in six locations around New York rather than the traditional Capitol affair. Speaking to about 1,800 invited guests at the University of Buffalo’s Center for the Performing Arts, the governor's plan concentrated more on neighborhood development and less grandiose projects that he said will still foster continuing economic progress in Western New York.

“Because the greatest feast has the largest number of people at the table and the greatest success is shared success,” he declared. “So we want to make sure every community is part of this renaissance.”

Other highlights include:

• Investing in "place-making" improvements on the city’s East Side, which the administration says would leverage private investments in the Central Terminal, around Martin Luther King Jr. Park and other locations;

• Funding for improvements along 10 miles of Main Street, from the Outer Harbor to UB’s North Campus;

• Moving Buffalo Manufacturing Works, the industrial innovation center operated by nonprofit EWI, to the Northland Corridor in the Fillmore-Ferry area; expanding greenway space in the Niagara Gorge corridor; and additional state funding at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, historic sites, and in waterway access areas.

How all those projects would be funded with $500 million is uncertain, though more details could emerge when Cuomo unveils his 2017-18 budget plan in the coming week.

The governor said he will also propose a $2 billion fund for clean drinking water infrastructure improvements. How the program will be funded, such as perhaps through a voter-approved statewide referendum, remains uncertain.

And though the proposal for free public college tuition for qualifying students that he announced last week elicited a sustained standing ovation at UB on Monday, some of his transportation initiatives also seemed to score with an appreciative crowd (though he was interrupted twice by hecklers who were quickly escorted from the auditorium).

His idea to expand Uber and Lyft to upstate – where they have never been approved by the Legislature – would end Buffalo’s distinction as the nation’s largest city without ride-sharing services.

"This is one of those examples, my friends, where it is just an unfair duality," he said. "If it makes sense for downstate, it makes sense for upstate. It’s unfair to leave out upstate because remember: Upstate matters.

"And that’s what I want you to tell your legislators when they come home," he added, "don’t come home to Buffalo unless you pass ridesharing for upstate New York."

But Cuomo’s most far-reaching proposal may be extending NFTA's Metro Rail system beyond the current 6.4-mile line completed in 1985.

"We will support extension of the light rail, providing a direct connection for tens of thousands of jobs," he said.

He also added state support for another Metro Rail extension into the former Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Terminal that serves as home base for the system’s light rail vehicles. Cuomo said the NFTA plan will spur development of the century-old downtown trainshed as well as throughout the Cobblestone District.

NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel said her agency is encouraged by the governor’s support for both the Amherst and DL&W extensions.

"Having the governor’s backing is vitally important and most appreciated," she said. "His endorsement will add momentum to our current endeavors to move both of these projects forward."

No specific plan or route has yet been recommended by NFTA planners, though specifics are expected soon. But the governor’s reference to a system serving Amherst commuters appears to center on a rail alternative (as opposed to enhanced bus service), with additional studies to determine environmental ramifications and costs.

Top leaders like Mayor Byron W. Brown and MACounty Executive Mark C. Poloncarz reacted more than positively as they were leaving the UB speech.

"It means jobs will be created as we will build our rail line to Amherst," Brown said. "It also means city residents will be able to get to jobs in our largest suburb."

Poloncarz called Cuomo’s support for more miles of Metro Rail track "huge."

"How many years have we seen push-back on that? We don’t see it any more," he said, adding he sees a new system addressing the "transportation nightmare commuters face on a daily basis."

Both also expressed support for the DL&W extension, which has already resulted in preliminary design plans approved by the NFTA. Though federal funds will provide the bulk of the project’s funding, the mayor said the state’s recognition of making the DL&W attractive to developers marks a major step forward.

"Those resources will be there," he said.

Even with Cuomo’s new support for ride-sharing, however, it appears the idea still faces debate in the Capitol. Joel A. Giambra, the former Erie County executive who represents Liberty Taxi Co., said Cuomo’s approval will meet with the industry’s approval – but that proper safeguards are still needed. That means requirements for fingerprinting and background checks for ride-sharing drivers.

"Uber is an important piece of the ground transportation puzzle, but it can’t be let in without the protections afforded in New York City," he said.

A host of other special interests – ranging from upstate mayors and county executives to Mothers Against Drunk Driving to the NAACP – all lauded Cuomo’s plan, pointing to everything from ride-sharing that gets drunks off the road to transit efforts that will help inner-city workers get to jobs.

"Upstate residents, visitors and businesses will all benefit from greater access to safe, reliable and modern transportation options," said Greg Biryla of Unshackle Upstate – an economic development group.

The governor outlined a host of projects designed to spur development in Niagara Falls, including the reclamation of 135,000 acres in the Niagara Gorge corridor.

"It will be the largest expansion of green space since the days of Olmsted," he said.

Jamestown will also benefit from a second Buffalo Billion phase that appears to extend well beyond Erie County.

"We will invest $5 million dollars to close the gap under the Lucille Ball Comedy Center," he said. "We think this is going to be a great tourist attraction."

He also unveiled a downtown revitalization program aimed at investing in the central business districts of almost a dozen Western New York villages.



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