The effort to bring car traffic back to Buffalo's downtown core on Main Street suffered a setback this week, after the city failed to win any federal money to fund the next round of construction work.
Without the federal funding, local officials aren't sure where the money will come from.
"We were disappointed," said Debra Chernoff, manager of planning for Buffalo Place, the nonprofit business improvement district in downtown Buffalo, which has worked closely with city officials on the Cars Sharing Main Street project. "The city’s got to figure out another option. It’s not easy. If it were easy, it would be done. No one disagrees about the design. It’s just not easy to get the funds."
The city had applied to the U.S. Department of Transportation for a $25 million BUILD grant to support the Cars Sharing Main Street initiative. That's the yearslong effort to reverse the 1980s conversion of Main into a failed pedestrian mall by reconstructing the central artery from Tupper Street to Canalside, so that cars and Metro Rail trains can both operate on the same roadway.
The goal of the initiative is to restore and revive activity along Main by enabling drivers to get to retail stores, apartments and other businesses located in buildings along the street.
"While we are disappointed in this round, the City of Buffalo has been successful in securing over $30 million through the USDOT BUILD grant program, as well as millions more from other sources," said Michael J. Finn, commissioner of the city's Department of Public Works. "We will be monitoring opportunities for additional sources of funding and will consider applying for future rounds of BUILD grants."
Both Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Brian Higgins said they would continue to work with the city to secure funding.
“Senator Schumer is proud he previously secured $33 million for this incredibly worthy Buffalo project," said Allison Biasotti, spokeswoman for New York's senior senator, who is also Senate Minority Leader. "Sen. Schumer has no doubt that it deserved to win again and believes this was a poor decision by USDOT, but is eager to work closely with the city of Buffalo to pursue other sources and make it a reality.”
“Congressman Higgins is an ardent advocate for federal investments in infrastructure," said Higgins spokeswoman Theresa Kennedy. "Higgins continues to advocate for a separate federal infrastructure bill which could help provide support for Cars Sharing Main Street and many other projects across Western New York.”
The highly competitive federal grant program - Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development - has been used successfully by the city to pay for significant portions of the previous rounds of work on Main Street. So far, cars have returned to the sections of Main from Tupper south to Mohawk streets, while crews are now at work on Lower Main Street from Canalside to Exchange.
In all, more than $43.3 million of the $64.5 million that has been spent to date on Cars Sharing Main has come from federal investments, according to Higgins. But there's another $95.4 million worth of construction still to go, according to Buffalo Place.
"We never give up," said Buffalo Place executive director Michael Schmand. "We’re going to work with our city partners, our state representatives, our federal representatives, and try to move this project forward. It’s too important a project for downtown to not continue."
The Main Street initiative – along with additional state and local funds for streetscape and building renovations – has already proven successful. Developers and private investors have bought up and redone an array of buildings along the street, while a host of new shops, restaurants and businesses have opened, drawing patrons and renewed activity to the street.
"The investment that has taken place by the public sector has driven the private sector," Schmand said. "We just have to keep the dialogue going. We can’t put it on the back burner. We have to put it front and center."
The latest application, submitted over the summer with the support of Schumer and Higgins, was intended to cover the majority of the cost for the next phase, from Church to Exchange streets. That work, which has not yet begun, was expected to cost $37.5 million, with the rest of the money anticipated to be covered by the city and donations from developer Douglas Jemal, the Washington, D.C.-based owner of Seneca One tower.
"That means we have to figure out some other way to fund this project. We can’t wait another year," said Keith Belanger, Buffalo Place chairman, and a senior vice president at M&T Bank Corp. Both M&T's headquarters and its future technology hub at Seneca One tower, with an expected 1,500 additional employees, are located in what is still the no-cars zone of Main.
The Transportation Department announced the awardees of the 2019 BUILD grants a few days ago, with 55 projects winning a total of $883.5 million out of 666 applications that were submitted nationwide. Only 8% of applicants received funds. Those projects, located in both urban and rural areas of 35 states.
Twenty-two applications were submitted by entities across New York State – where Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James and other state officials have publicly feuded with President Trump – but none were funded, according to Higgins' office. The Democratic congressman noted, however, that the Trump administration had indicated earlier that rural investments would be a priority, and half of the awards went to rural areas.
Higgins also noted that the state receives $1.3 billion in federal surface transportation funding annually, which it could use to support the Buffalo investment.
State Sen. Chris Jacobs, R-Buffalo, who is also a developer and member of the Buffalo Place board, said he would see if there is infrastructure money available from the state. "We're so close," he said.
Meanwhile, work on the Lower Main Street portion of the project at Canalside is continuing this week, but will be wrapping up shortly as the weather turns more wintry, Chernoff said. The Metro Rail trains will switch to the new rail that has been installed on the east side of Main at Scott Street next week, while work will resume on the west side in March, she added.