WASHINGTON – Several key Buffalo-area public works projects, including the dredging that's needed to keep the Buffalo Harbor navigable and the building of new seawalls aimed at preventing flooding in Hamburg and protecting LaSalle Park, could be in danger if President Trump decides to declare a national emergency to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
While Trump appeared to back away from that idea on Monday – at least for now – his staffers have asked the Army Corps of Engineers to identify projects nationwide that could be cancelled so that funds could be transferred to the president's long-promised barrier at the southern border.
Army Corps officials told the office of Rep. Brian Higgins that the corps' cleanup of contaminated former military sites will continue, but that any pending construction or maintenance projects could be in danger of losing their funding.
That means $20.7 million in Buffalo-area federal spending could be in danger, including:
- $12.45 million in funding for dredging and other projects in the Buffalo Harbor, including the repair of the north and south breakwaters.
- $4 million for a new seawall on Lake Erie in the Athol Springs section of Hamburg that's intended to prevent flooding along Route 5.
- $3.7 million for a shoreline protection project at LaSalle Park.
- $550,000 for the engineering and design of a motor control center and lock at the Black Rock and Tonawanda Channel.
Asked about the potential loss of funding, Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, said: "I'm very concerned about it. You can't develop a successful waterfront without a well-funded Army Corps of Engineers that does bank stabilization, shoreline protection, boater safety."
The biggest project that's in danger includes work that's both routine and necessary: the dredging of the Buffalo Harbor.
"The harbor requires approximately 140,000 cubic yards of dredging every two years in order to maintain the navigation channel," the Army Corps said in a 2017 study.
Without that dredging, the study said, the harbor might have to shut down its commercial traffic, thereby forcing every business that utilizes the harbor to ship its products by train or truck instead of ship.
Repairs are needed to the harbor's north and south breakwaters, too, the Army Corps said in a separate document. The north breakwater protects the Erie Basin Marina, while the south breakwater protects the Buffalo Small Boat Harbor.
"Breakwater failure would result in loss of the outer harbor as well as damage to the facilities located along the shoreline," the Army Corps said in a separate assessment of Buffalo Harbor facilities.
Also in danger of losing its funding is the new seawall that's scheduled to be built at Athol Springs in Hamburg to prevent waves from crashing onto Route 5. That phenomenon that produced the infamous "ice car," a vehicle that became encased in ice as waves crashed over the shoreline three years ago.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, traveled to Hamburg in September to tout the new seawall and stress how necessary it is.
"Route 5 is a vital link between Buffalo and the Southtowns, but due to the quickly deteriorating condition of the existing barrier wall along Lake Erie, drivers are endangered whenever waves come crashing over the wall onto Route 5," Schumer said.
The Army Corps also plans to rebuild a 1,300-foot stretch of a similar seawall to protect LaSalle Park.
"The seawall fronting the Colonel F.G. Ward Pumping Station has deteriorated over time due to Lake Erie ice and wave action," the Army Corps said in announcing the project last October. "Projecting the pump station is essential because it is the primary source of drinking water for the City of Buffalo residents."
There's no doubt, though, that those local projects could be in danger, given that federal law stipulates that the president can dip into Army Corps funds in case of a national emergency.
Asked about the potential transfer of funds from Buffalo to Trump's wall at the Mexican border, the Army Corps referred questions to Capt. Bill Speaks, a Department of Defense spokesman.
"The Department of Defense is reviewing available authorities and funding mechanisms to identify options to enable border barrier construction," Speaks said. "As there has not been a national emergency declaration made, it would be inappropriate to comment further on those efforts."
Trump has toyed with the idea of declaring a national emergency at the southern border as a way of funding the wall he wants to build there to try to prevent undocumented immigrants and illegal drugs from entering the country.
Doing so would provide him with a way out of a partial government shutdown that enters its 25th day on Tuesday. Trump has insisted that he will not sign funding legislation to reopen the government unless it includes $5.7 billion for his border wall, but Democrats have steadfastly refused to give in to that demand.
That being the case, Trump said last week that he might consider an emergency declaration "if I can’t make a deal with people that are unreasonable."
An emergency declaration would be hugely controversial, though, and would probably end up challenged in the federal courts. Democrats contend there is no emergency at the southern border, and some Republicans have pushed back against an emergency declaration, too, fearing that it would set a precedent for presidents to abuse their authority.
On Monday, Trump appeared to back away from the emergency declaration, telling reporters: "Now I have the absolute legal right to call it, but I'm not looking to do that.”
But Higgins wasn't exactly ready to take Trump at his word.
"I think it's part of his incoherent inconsistency," Higgins said of Trump's latest comments.
As for the emergency declaration, "he might be back on it an hour from now," Higgins said. "You know how that works. So you don't know what to believe."