By Jann Wiswall
Cattaraugus County’s Route 219 Corridor Development Committee met for the first time in nearly two and a half years on Wednesday, Feb. 13, and it was clear that enthusiasm for the project had not waned, despite the absence of progress at the state level.
The project involves building a four-lane divided highway extension of Rte. 219 approximately 20 miles from where it currently ends at the dual-span bridge over Cattaraugus Creek in West Valley and continues south to I-86 in Salamanca. The highway is intended to keep large trucks and heavier traffic away from the many small towns and villages along the current Rte. 219, including Ellicottville, and provide better commuter access to Buffalo and the airport.
This section of 219 also completes the NY section of what will someday be a north-south route known as “Continental 1” that goes from Toronto, Canada, to Miami, Florida. Most of the roads on the Continental 1 route already exist or are under construction. Only 269 miles still need funding to complete the project.
New York State funding for the Rte. 219 extension and many other highway projects in western New York was pulled in 2008 because of a Department of Transportation funding error that has never been corrected. The Rte. 219 Corridor Development Committee now is pushing for funding of a long-delayed State Environmental Impact Study, the first step required to get the project underway.
During the meeting, committee members heard statements from business, government and other area leaders expressing their support for the extension, citing safety, economic development and access benefits.
A representative for Greg Booth, president of Zippo Manufacturing Company, said that completing 219 is critical for access to markets, for recruiting and retaining skilled workers and executives, and for commuter safety. He asserted that four-lane divided highways are statistically twice as safe as two-lane highways, and added that “this is not a political issue, it’s an economic issue” that will impact virtually every resident in the region.
Art Hile, Dresser-Rand’s finance director for the Americas and Asia Pacific, said the 219 extension will save his company significant logistical and travel expenses. Dresser-Rand’s fleet carrying permitted loads must take I-86 from Olean to Erie, and then take 1-90 north to Buffalo and beyond. Opening up 219 will significantly shorten both truck and employee travel time and provide more efficient access to the airport.
St. Bonaventure University’s Director of Operations Tom Buttafarro read a letter from University President Sister Margaret Carney, who said that it is time for action. She relayed a story about an SBU student whose father died when the car they were traveling in on 219 was hit head-on by a car coming in the other direction. She said, “A divided highway would have prevented this terrible accident.” She also believed that faster and safer access would attract more students and keep them.
From a healthcare perspective, Karen Fohl, president of the Olean General Hospital Foundation, expressed the importance of a four-lane divided highway for emergency patient transport. Ambulances need to move quickly, which is difficult on two-lane roads – especially in bad weather. She also said that, in rural areas, it is especially difficult to recruit physicians. Better access to the airport and city would improve recruiting efforts.
Mike Glesk, a partner with Bradford Associates, recently facilitated a meeting of logistics experts who convened to investigate ways to get a bigger chunk of trade flow between Canada and the U.S. to come through Buffalo. The group, made up of trucking, railroad, customs and airport representatives, found that most of that flow goes from Halifax to Toronto to Detroit, then south into the U.S. The single biggest barrier to changing that route is the lack of an adequate north-south corridor out of Buffalo. The 219 extension, Glesk said, “is the missing link” to economic development.
Finally, Cattaraugus County’s Department of Economic Development, Planning and Tourism Director Crystal Abers highlighted the importance of the highway project on county tourism, which is a $200 million industry. Some three million visitors come to Holiday Valley, Allegany State Park and the Seneca Allegany Casino each year, not to mention all the other tourist attractions. And the county is quickly becoming a four-season destination. But, she pointed out, Niagara Falls attracts 12 million visitors. The 219 extension will improve the county’s ability to draw more tourists and residents from the northern counties, as well as Canada.
Following these presentations, representatives from several elected officials’ offices expressed their commitment to the project. Congressman Tom Reed’s (R) representative stated that the congressman is “unequivocally in support of 219” and will help find “creative ways to complete the environmental review.”
State Senator Catharine Young’s (R) representative read a letter the Senator wrote to Governor Cuomo requesting $6.5 million to fund the 219 Supplemental Environmental Impact Study and allow the next phase of the project to begin. She stated that the project is “imperative” for Western New York’s economic development.
Representatives from State Senator Patrick Gallivan’s (R) and State Assemblyman Joseph Giglio’s (R) offices also expressed support for the project.
Meg Lauerman, project manager for Continental 1, an advocacy group, addressed the committee, stating that “we’re only looking at 20 miles” of roadway in New York and it needs to get done.
“This project will re-link our region to the rest of the world,” she said.
She asked the committee to formally ask the governor and the Department of Transportation Commissioner to allocate funds for the SEIS and keep the process moving. She also urged each member of the committee to write personal notes expressing their frustration that no DOT representatives were present at Wednesday’s meeting.
“This is their job,” she added. “They need to do their job.”
Finally, Richard Zink, president of the Route 219 Association, another advocacy organization, encouraged committee members to emphasize in their arguments that the 219 extension fits into New York’s strategic plan by helping to reduce fuel and energy consumption, opening access to markets and promoting public safety by keeping heavy trucks out of our towns and villages.
The next meeting of the Route 219 Corridor Development Committee will be held on Wednesday, October 9 at 6 p.m. at the Cattaraugus County Center in Little Valley.