Money from the Niagara Power Project helped break decades of inertia on Buffalo’s waterfront.
Rep. Brian Higgins thinks it can do the same for Niagara Falls.
The Buffalo Democrat on Thursday called on the New York Power Authority to fund the removal of the Robert Moses Parkway, which is seen as the main barrier to tourism along the Niagara River.
“NYPA planned the parkway, NYPA built it, NYPA evicted several scores of homeowners and other property owners to seize the land on which it sits, and NYPA owns the land under the parkway to this day,” Higgins said. “As such, NYPA bears the responsibility for fixing it.”
Higgins said the Power Authority should pay $120 million for the removal and redesign of the highway, which Higgins termed as “absurdly overbuilt.”
State officials and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-NY, already are working on plans to convert a stretch of the highway near Niagara Falls State Park into a pedestrian-friendly, low-speed road that would connect the city to the river, and similar plans are under review between Niagara Falls and Lewiston.
But a lack of funding – which has stalled previous plans for the Moses – remains a key obstacle with only $5 million allocated for two projects that could top $100 million.
“Right now, you’re going to have a very ambitious plan with very little money to finance it,” Higgins said. “Five million won’t do anything for you here, it just won’t. One hundred million will.”
Higgins argues the Power Authority has an obligation to undo Moses’ namesake because it tore down homes to build the highway in the 1950s despite opposition from concerned residents and local leaders.
Those decisions not only displaced residents but created a physical and economic barrier between the crumbling city and the gorge, according to a 14-page report he provided to Power Authority Chairman John R. Koelmel.
“As the successor to Robert Moses, you have an historic opportunity to right one of the more egregious historic wrongs which he committed by reworking the roadway which bears his name to actually serve the interests of the city and the neighborhoods in which it sits,” Higgins wrote to Koelmel.
City officials said they were pleased that Higgins is engaging in waterfront affairs in Niagara Falls, two weeks after the struggling city was added to his redrawn Congressional district.
They hope Higgins can get the Power Authority to deliver the kind of money it gave to Buffalo, when a 2005 settlement netted $279 million for the redevelopment of Buffalo’s waterfront.
“I think this is going to be very popular cause in the City of Niagara Falls,” Mayor Paul A. Dyster said. “There’s certainly a feeling in the region that the Niagara power plant provides benefits for the state in excess of what we get back as a region.”
To underscore that point, Higgins said the Power Authority:
• Helped take more than $1 billion from the Niagara project in the last six years to fund operations elsewhere.
• Had a 2008 surplus of $309 million, 76 percent of which came from the Niagara plant
• Generated an extra $39.5 million last year from excess water flows at Niagara and should see its profits grow as it increases its generating capacity
Higgins also notes that the Niagara plant is one of few power plants that makes money for the state. He says state studies showed that prior to the relicensing agreement, only 14 percent of the economic benefit from the Niagara plant remains in Western New York.
“No other place in the state can provide what Niagara Falls can,” Higgins said. “NYPA can and should choose to be a partner in the city’s rise once again.”
Power Authority spokesman Michael Saltzman declined to comment on the details of the proposal but said the authority would “respond in a timely manner and continue to have an open dialogue with the congressman.”
If the authority does not pay the funds, Higgins suggests he could object to the 2019 federal relicensing of a power plant in the Catskills which is deemed crucial to the New York City power supply. Local leaders could push for the authority to lose control of that plant, the report states.
“I am prepared to use that as leverage again,” Higgins said.