Plans to move the Williamsville toll barrier have been delayed so long that of $6.1 million in federal Highway Trust Funds guaranteed toward the project in 1998, about $5.3 million has already been spent repeatedly “studying” the matter.
Amherst Council Member Richard “Jay” Anderson discussed the figure after receiving about 600 pages of documents released last month by the New York State Thruway Authority and the Department of Transportation.
“There’s been so much public input, they’ve had to study this over eight years,” Anderson said. “In 2000, construction was supposed to have been started within 30 months.”
In August, Anderson picked up the toll barrier issue once championed by his father, former Assemblyman Richard R. Anderson, who had led the Williamsville Toll Barrier Relocation Task Force. Jay Anderson received unanimous board approval to have the town attorney send state agencies a Freedom of Information Law request to find out what happened to $6.1 million in federally earmarked funds for the toll barrier relocation project.
It now appears that much of that money has been spent on various engineering studies over the years, especially as organized opponents in the second- and third-tier suburbs have objected to three alternate locations recommended by the Thruway Authority, he said.
Anderson blamed the failure to move ahead with the project over the years on “a lack of leadership.”
A generation of politicians has come and gone during the time Amherst residents have pushed for the Williamsville toll barrier to be moved farther east. A relocation would likely result in the removal of both the existing Williamsville and Depew toll stations.
The issue has been tossed around since the mid-1970s, and it picked up steam in the late 1980s and again in the late 1990s after Congress approved millions in transportation aid for the project. By then, a project that was once supposed to cost $10 million had swelled to $39 million, but the Thruway Authority said federal money would cover $26 million.
A Buffalo News story from 1999 said $6.1 million would come from Highway Trust Fund proceeds and that, according to then-Assemblyman James P. Hayes, another $20 million would come from federal funds, but that money was not guaranteed and would “take some pushing” from the region’s congressional delegation.
“Jim Hayes’ characterization of it was wrong,” Anderson responded, referring to the original 1998 federal legislation, called the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, or TEA-21.
According to the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council, $36.5 million remains earmarked for the toll barrier project in Thruway Authority and federal TEA-21 funds. Anderson said only $5.3 million of that amount has been spent.
“All you need is some leadership if you already have half the funding in place,” Anderson said.
The last time the Williamsville toll barrier project received a lot of media coverage was in 2006 when the Thruway Authority announced that the project, which in the 1980s was estimated to cost $10 million, would now be completed by 2010 at a cost of nearly $80 million.
“We know people have been waiting a long time for this to come to fruition,” said the authority’s executive director six years ago.
The wait continues, even though a Thruway Authority study from late 2005 showed that moving the toll barriers farther east would have a positive economic impact on businesses along Main Street and Transit Road, which are currently hurt by cut-through Thruway traffic congestion. The move would also reduce travel time, local roadway maintenance costs, accidents and fatalities, the study showed.
Though both Town of Amherst and Village of Williamsville officials have made comments in recent months about resurrecting the campaign to have the toll barriers moved, the optimism of past years has clearly waned, despite what local politicians describe as a serious and ongoing need.
“The toll barrier backs up to some of our residents’ backyards,” said Williamsville Mayor Brian Kulpa. “We have standing, idling engines pumping noxious chemicals into backyards; the engines are obnoxiously loud. We have forever dealt with traffic and congestion on Main Street, but this would go specifically toward decreasing commercial and commuter volume.”
In 2008, the Thruway Authority stated that it was removing the Williamsville toll barrier project from its $2.1 billion construction program, as well as its promised highway-speed toll collection system for EZ Pass holders at a new barrier 11 miles to the east.
“The Thruway Authority hasn’t given me reason to be optimistic that [the barrier] will be moved,” Kulpa said. “It would take an entity or person in the state to say, ‘This is a priority for me. This is a priority for Western New York. We’re going to do it.’ ”
There is still money left in the budget to do more studies, though. The Thruway Authority has stated that it still has $768,000 in federal funds earmarked in the current capital construction budget so that the ongoing study of the project’s economic impact can be completed.