Remarks reported last week by regional economic development officials regarding Route 219 have sparked calls by supporters of the proposed expressway for renewed effort to fund environmental studies.

Western New York Regional Economic Development Council (WNYREDC) officials said with the 26-mile, four-lane expressway costing an estimated $1 billion, it was unlikely to be built and called instead for access and safety improvements.

Jeff Belt, CEO of SolEpoxy of Olean and Cattaraugus County’s representative to the WNYREDC, said in a meeting with the Olean Times Herald editorial board that improved access — particularly for Dresser-Rand in Olean — could be attained by eliminating the Route 417 bottleneck at the Kill Buck underpass and by building an Ellicottville bypass to get trucks off the village streets.

Route 219 supporters were quick to pick up on Mr. Belt’s comments, which were echoed by WNYREDC Executive Director Christina Orsi. The WNYREDC has refused several requests to help fund the Supplemental Environmental Impact Study (SEIS). Mr. Belt said it would use most of the WNYREDC’s discretionary funding for a project unlikely to be funded due to its price tag.

Meg Lauerman, executive director of the Continental 1 group lobbying for a four-lane trade route from Toronto to Florida, said, “(It’s my understanding) you really couldn’t do any part of the project without some degree of environmental study.”

She said Pennsylvania has made progress on turning Route 219 into a four-lane through much of the state, while New York has done nothing since finishing the stretch between Springville and the town of Ashford three years ago.

State Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, said the expressway would benefit not only the county, but all of Western New York. 

“By opening a major trade route between Canada and Florida, 219 would logistically put us on the economic map as corporations look to locate in regions with transportation access,” she said.

“Our highest priority continues to be job growth and economic development. Route 219 would be a major part of any future success.”

Completing Route 219 would also addresses safety issues.

“With the minor upgrades suggested, those safety concerns would not be resolved,” she said. “Too many lives have been lost on that roadway. A completed 219 would increase safety exponentially.”

Sen. Young said the cost of completing the Route 219 Expressway is probably closer to $500 million.

And the state has money.

“New York has recently come into a multibillion-dollar windfall — $3 billion from BNP/Paribas and another $800 million from Bank of America — because of settlement penalties owed by banks,” the senator said. “In either case, we need to fund the required environmental study as it would be necessary for either the completion of 219 or the minor modifications suggested.  We hope to get a commitment to move forward.

“We deserve our fair share to advance the economy, protect the safety and enhance the quality of life for our communities.”

Sen. Young succeeded two years ago in getting the SEIS money placed in the Senate’s “one-house budget,” but was unable to get Assembly leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to go along with the environmental funding.

Sen. Young cautioned New York would be the only state involved not to commit to the project.

Former Route 219 Association president Dennis Eshbaugh, who is also president and general manager of Holiday Valley Resort in Ellicottville, said the bypass Mr. Belt proposed “accomplishes one positive thing, but has many negatives.” 

Mr. Eshbaugh said getting many of the big trucks off Ellicottville’s main streets would be a good thing, but it would be of no help getting visitors to the village or the Holiday Valley and HoliMont resorts. 

“We believe it would hurt the small, independent shops in the village” and deter people from visiting, he said. “(The bypass) provides a very small benefit to a few, but no benefit to a majority of travelers.”

Sen. Young and Mr. Eshbaugh believe the issues raised by Mr. Belt should be discussed by the Route 219 Association and the Cattaraugus County Route 219 Committee.

Route 219 Association President Richard Zink, executive director of the Southern Tier West Regional Planning and Development Board, said Friday he was glad to see the Route 219 issue back in the news.

“I think it’s very important for us to continue down the path of getting the SEIS,” he said. “It will give us insight and options of the best way of enhancing the region. It could help solve some of the economic development and safety issues.”

He said he would like to continue the dialogue stated by Mr. Belt’s comments with meetings.

“The more people are talking about this, the more the topic is discussed, the better.”

 (Contact reporter Rick Miller at rmiller@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @RMillerOTH)

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