Where are things heading on Buffalo’s transportation projects?

Government and politics usually come in two varieties: wishes and dreams, and reality. Reality is harder to deal with.

Candidates and officeholders like wishes and dreams. They sound good. They can appeal to more than one constituency. Rarely does anyone wonder about how something will be paid for.

Reality is now upon us now concerning several major transportation issues in Buffalo.

“Infrastructure week” became a running joke during the Trump administration. Nothing very specific was ever offered up as a potential solution for anything. To the extent the former administration tried to talk about specifics their ideas mostly had to do with making lots of roads privately run toll roads which could make rich people richer while aggravating the public.

President Joe Biden had a different approach. He had specifics on what needs to be done and the ways it could be paid for were. There were endless negotiations with Congress. Compromises were accepted. The final bill had bi-partisan support.

The former guy and his acolytes like Congressman Chris Jacobs have denounced the Biden legislation even though the former administration was incapable of producing results on anything except tax cuts for the rich. Trump Republicans now denounce their fellow Republicans who supported the Biden plan as “traitors” and call for revenge.  My way or the highway so to speak.

At the end of the day, as messy as it was, Biden’s approach worked.  More than one trillion dollars —real money — has become available. About half of it was renewed funding for mostly existing formula-driven cash for highways, bridges, airports, and public transit. 

The other half of the funding is for an expanded federal funding role in other infrastructure needs such as environmental improvements, removal of lead pipes and the expanded availability of broadband service, particularly in rural areas. County Executive Mark Poloncarz plans to use some of the county’s share of the money for updates to sewer systems that were most recently rebuilt in the 1970s.

So where does this leave the long-discussed major transportation projects in Western New York, which have included public hearings, planning, and some environmental assessment but lack two important features — construction money and serious engineering work that makes projects a go? The projects in question are the Skyway, the Kensington Expressway and the Scajaquada Expressway plus the extension of Metrorail through Amherst up to the North Campus of the University at Buffalo.

All of those projects have been on the table for many, many years. Each of them individually would undoubtedly cost between $500 million to a billion dollars or more.  Millions have already been spent on hearings and basic engineering work.

The three highway projects would fall into category of “reconnecting communities “that were separated years ago by a thoroughfare designed to speed workers from their jobs in the city to their suburban homes.  Neighborhoods were destroyed in the process.

The new federal infrastructure bill was intended to fix some of the city-to-suburbs highway dilemma by providing money for renovation work. Twenty billion dollars was the original numbering. The actual legislation, however, sets aside just $1 billion, to be awarded competitively on a national basis.

The New York Times last summer identified about 33 projects (including the three in Buffalo) throughout the country that would fit the “reconnecting communities” category. Many are in the wishes and dreams classification of public works. Some are close to shovel ready; the Buffalo projects are not anywhere near shovel ready.

So where do limited federal funds and other competitive projects leave Buffalo.  The honest answer is we are not likely in the running for that $1 billion or any significant portion of the money.

Might the state step in? Maybe.   But how many Buffalo billions would the state support?

Similar questions can be raised about the extension of Metrorail. That project also seems to lack the political will to try to push the work forward.

A related issue concerns the operating losses that the NFTA already is having trouble handling with the current 6.4 miles line.  Questions could arise about the years of neighborhood disruption that would come from construction activities.

There are wishes and dreams and then there is reality. Is there a real justification for continuing to spend millions studying these projects when there will not be a pot of money available at the end to actually build something?

It is important to bear in mind the extraordinarily difficult efforts needed to produce the infrastructure bill that was just approved, a bill that many observers nonetheless find to be inadequate. We also need to remember how long the process took, going back many years. The opportunity and willingness to do that all again is hard to imagine.

There are many positive community benefits from these proposed public works projects but after years of talk and planning the prospects of construction money are slim.  Maybe it is just time as a community to stop the public works dreams and wishes. Figure out the things that are also valuable to the community but are doable.

The perfect should not stand in the way of the good. Save the money to do the good.