When local politicians gathered to hear Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plans for cashless tolling at the Grand Island bridges nearly two weeks ago, one of the concept’s most vocal proponents proved conspicuously absent.
Rep. Brian Higgins was not invited by the governor’s staff, though he has also loudly sought toll relief for Grand Island commuters.
The congressman, on the other hand, often does not wait for invitations from Albany. Last spring he staged his own press event to celebrate the new pedestrian bridge over Buffalo’s Niagara Thruway ‑ sans any state officials who built the structure.
That’s pretty much how two major champions of Buffalo development conduct their business these days ‑ separately and sometimes in competition. With ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings crowding the local schedule, Higgins’ long role in securing funds for waterfront development and other projects often butts heads with Cuomo’s more recent Buffalo Billion and additional state efforts.
Nobody suggests any downgrade in the close relationship between the two powerful figures. And the projects continue no matter who stages the photo opportunities.
But a palpable tension ‑ at least among some people around both men ‑ underscores efforts to transform Buffalo’s Rust Belt image.
“There is no question that Brian has been a champion of our Buffalo waterfront and continues to be a partner in future development,” said Robert D. Gioia, chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and a close Cuomo ally. “Now that we’re at the point...where more things are happening on multiple fronts, we need open lines of communication so we can achieve the best results.”
Higgins down plays any hint of rift, and feels no slight over the Grand Island ceremony despite a year-long role in the tolling issue. He sees his job as making noise when necessary.
“It’s about creative tension and that’s how things get done,” he said.
Still, examples of friction between the two camps include:
• Higgins’ 2016 criticism of the harbor development agency as “insular” and unwilling to accept ideas of its own.
“ECHDC has shown of late that they may be reaching the end of their useful life,” he said then.
• Higgins’ April blast at state officials for lack of action at the Canalside “Aud Block,” charging the unfilled hole at the former Buffalo Memorial Auditorium site resulted from the harbor development agency being “distracted” by other issues.
• Cuomo’s May response: a harbor cruise showcasing waterfront development sponsored by the state, attended by dozens of officials and local supporters. On board he credited Capitol aide John Maggiore with urging action at the site and promised to “put $2 million on the table, put out an RFP, and let’s get the best private sector deal we can to redo the Aud Block and we’re going to do that right away.”
• A siting commission appointed by Cuomo and headed by Mayor Byron W. Brown rejected Higgins’ vocal support for a new Amtrak station at Central Terminal and instead opted for a downtown location on Exchange Street. Higgins calls the downtown decision “Buffalo’s biggest mistake in 10 years.”
• Higgins’ sharp criticism last fall of the state’s pace in Outer Harbor development and his increasing disillusionment with the agency. After receiving state assurance that new amenities would soon be in place along the waterfront, the congressman referred to the incident as a “dustup.”
• Higgins’ efforts to derail the state Department of Transportation’s $34 million plan to redeck the Skyway. While the state simultaneously studies the massive structure’s long term future, the congressman calls it “structurally deficient and functionally obsolete” while seeking its demolition and replacement with something new.
Eclipsed by Cuomo?
As a Council member, assemblyman and now congressman, Higgins has long championed waterfront development. He proved instrumental in brokering a revenue stream into the waterfront through a New York Power Authority re-licensing agreement.
But Cuomo has also assumed a proactive waterfront role, transferring more than 400 acres of Outer Harbor lands from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to the state. In addition, the state sponsored major development at the Inner Harbor ‑ right down to specifics like a $1.2 million challenge grant to help finance a 1924 vintage carousel at Canalside.
Now Higgins critics say he feels eclipsed by Albany.
“I call it his battle to become relevant again,” said one pro-Cuomo source who asked not to be identified. “He’s really lost his crown for progress on the waterfront; that’s been taken over by Andrew Cuomo. He’s no longer the person who gets all the attention on the waterfront.”
Observers note that Higgins has never directly criticized the governor, nor has Cuomo ever blasted the congressman. Yet some Cuomo allies say they interpret Higgins’ comments as shots directed toward the man at the top.
“He’s really attacking the governor, indirectly,” said one Cuomo ally who asked not to be identified.
The same source pointed out that while both leaders often express dissatisfaction with the pace of waterfront development, Cuomo has logged real results. The source noted that officials mused for decades about transferring the Outer Harbor from the NFTA to direct state control.
“Cuomo picked up the phone and told his parks commissioner ‘You’re getting a new park,’” the source said.
Another source who regularly discusses issues with Higgins, meanwhile, emphasized that he and Cuomo share no personal animosity.
“His frustration is with things not happening fast enough,” he said. “He’s not mad at the governor or Byron, they’re just not moving fast enough.”
Higgins and the mayor
In the past, Higgins has also quietly clashed with Brown over the pace of Buffalo development. The congressman publicly criticized the mayor's 2012 plans to demolish several West Side homes for Peace Bridge plaza expansion, exposing a simmering feud between the two.
At the time, they also disagreed on waterfront issues. The Brown administration, while not opposing Higgins' idea to upgrade Ohio Street as a connector between downtown and the waterfront, listed other priorities for its transportation dollars - including returning cars to Main Street. But Higgins' effort has since then turned Ohio Street into a new and bustling corridor with commercial, recreational and residential development.
And the congressman challenged the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority -- controlled by the mayor -- in June over plans to tear down rows of empty apartments in the Commodore Perry complex. He proposed instead giving developers a chance to rehabilitate and rent them to low- and moderate-income tenants.
"We can't just let this property in such proximity to the downtown core deteriorate as it is," Higgins said then. "I can't accept this blight in my city."
Higgins now says his job demands challenging bureaucracy, whether brokering the Power Authority funds or relocating the Niagara Scenic Parkway in Niagara Falls. In fact, he embraces a role he sees as “getting the attention of bureaucrats.”
“I get aggressive and step on toes because I have to,” he said. “Bureaucracies and public authorities try to wear you down so you go away.”
Higgins noted that he and Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan last spring highlighted a perceived lack of action at Canalside’s Aud Block, pointing to a “big hole in the ground” and asking why the state’s harbor development agency had not moved faster.
“They have mismanaged the money I secured,” he said, referring to the $30 million Power Authority re-licensing settlement. “We said: ‘Build out the master plan you approved.’
“Then the governor announced action two months later,” he added. “I view this very clearly as my role ‑ to help advance the political and factual arguments relevant to the final decision the governor makes.”
While DOT has made no decisions about the Skyway that Higgins has sought to remove for years, it has agreed to consider alternatives. The congressman thinks his agitation has at least secured that promise, though now he rails at Albany’s plans for such an expensive interim rehabilitation.
One Cuomo ally who asked not be identified said Higgins’ efforts may ultimately coincide with Cuomo aims, but the manner in which they are conveyed encourages the perception of conflict. The congressman’s penchant for announcing “things already in the hopper” ‑ like the Niagara Thruway pedestrian bridge ‑ the source said, “is a little bit tiresome.”
While Cuomo surrogates credit Higgins for an important role, they emphasize Buffalo’s progress as a centerpiece of the governor’s economic development efforts.
“I have often been asked why Buffalo could not turn itself around like other cities,” said Sam Hoyt, regional president of the Empire State Development Corp. “My answer always was the inability of the public and private sector to get on the same page.
“The Buffalo Billion is incredibly significant,” he added, “but the most successful thing Andrew Cuomo has done is to build a revitalization strategy that involves all stakeholders and build a consensus around that agenda.”
Higgins sees no change in his approach. He believes he ultimately shares the same goals as Albany and that his methods are bearing fruit.
“Once these things are brought to the governor’s attention,” he said, “he always makes the right decisions.”