By Jann Wiswall
After a year and a half of inaction, there are now renewed efforts to push for completion of the Rt. 219 Expressway from Springville to Salamanca.
A new “Route 219 Corridor Development Committee,” consisting of Cattaraugus County legislative, municipal and business leaders, was convened on Thursday, March 3 by Cattaraugus County Legislative Chair Paula Stockman. It is charged with working to secure newly available funds for the project.
The effort is being spearheaded by Continental 1, the non-profit organization that is advocating for the completion of a north-south international highway that will one day reach all the way from Toronto to Florida. Continental 1 has been working with the states along the way to find funding for missing sections of highway all along its route.
In New York, only the 20 mile stretch that lies in Cattaraugus County, known as Section 12, has yet to be completed, forcing commercial truck traffic from all over the country to share the mostly two-lane road with local traffic through the county’s small villages and towns, including Ashford, Ellicottville, Great Valley and Salamanca.
Committee members agreed that the current situation is dangerous. Hugh Dunne, who has been working in various capacities to improve Rt. 219 for some 40 years since his son was killed in Ashford in an accident in 1975, noted that there is an average of three traffic-related deaths on the road every year.
Ashford Supervisor Charles Davis said that in his experience as a firefighter, safety at the intersection of Peters Rd. and the old 219 is only getting worse, citing a serious accident there the day before the committee meeting.
Meg Lauerman, executive director of Continental 1, explained to the committee that funding for a portion of Rt. 219 completion is more likely than it has been in past years due to the recent release of federal funds to states for “Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects” (NSFHP).
Lauerman noted that the local project meets virtually all of the qualifications for that program.
Julie Schmidt, a representative from State Senator Kathy Young’s office, reported that the Senator has had promising conversations with the DOT Commissioner who “expressed a willingness to consider” 219 given new funding sources.
State Senator Joe Giglio, who attended the meeting and has long supported the project, said that he expects to see at least some of the funding in this year’s budget.
And representatives from Congress member Tom Reed’s office said that Reed is fully on board and is submitting the application for the federal NSFHP program.
The entire 20-mile project is estimated to cost $713 million. Eighty percent of that would come from the federal government; 20 percent would be state funds.
Lauerman explained that experience has taught Continental 1 that lobbying for funds to complete small sections of larger projects has been most successful. As a result, she is recommending that the committee push for funds to start the project at Rt. I-86 and head north for two miles. This section would create a new 219 interchange (Exit 22) at I-86 in Salamanca leading to a new four-lane highway via a new bridge that would go around the city and join the old 219 in Great Valley, keeping commercial traffic off the city streets.
She added that the new exchange will be better for both commercial and local traffic even on its own until the rest of the 18 miles are constructed.
This two-mile chunk of the project is estimated to cost $100 million. It is the most expensive part of the project since it involves a bridge.
Dunne, who was elected chair of the committee at the beginning of the meeting, expressed some frustration that, while the funding picture might look better, there still must be an agreement with the Seneca Nation on the project. Dunne said that, while many leaders of the Nation support the project, many still harbor hard feelings with the state going back to 1976 over the I-86 expressway.
“The state has to resolve the 1976 issue first,” he said.
Lauerman agreed, acknowledging the complex issues that need to be addressed. Reached after the meeting, she commented that “there are a lot of well meaning people in this equation and it’s my understanding that all involved are trying to come to a fair and equitable agreement.”
Meanwhile, she encouraged committee members and their organizations, where applicable, to lobby Governor Cuomo using a supplied letter (or a customized letter) asking for funding support.
The letter states in part that “this project has independent utility, is on the National Highway System, and aligns with the NSFHP program goals. It will, among many benefits, improve safety and efficiency, increase this rural region’s access to national and international trade markets, generate regional economic benefits and improve multi-modal connectivity.”
Lauerman encourages all supporters of the project to download, print out, sign and send the prepared letter to Governor Cuomo. For information, visit continental1.org.