Conner Road in the Town of Clarence is two lanes wide and less than a mile long, and residents of the 39 homes along the road have waited more than a decade for Erie County to rebuild it.
“Poloncarz Fix this road,” read the lawn signs aimed at Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.
So Erie County offered a deal: The county will pay a half-million dollars to fix the drainage on the road, if Clarence pays for the rest of the project – at least another $500,000 – and agrees to take ownership of Conner.
Opinions differ on that, but the Conner proposal is being floated as a potential template for Erie County to give back miles and miles of county roads to its municipalities.
The county can’t afford them all.
“These are the kinds of things we’d like to do moving forward,” Poloncarz said. “There is simply no reason for the county to maintain roads that have very little traffic and are residential in nature.”
Ownership and maintenance of these roads came to a head during the harsh winter that riddled the area’s roads with potholes and rekindled a decades-old discussion over the cost for Erie County to maintain 1,200 miles of infrastructure stretching from Newstead to Colden.
No other county in the state is responsible for more roads than Erie County, according to figures from the State Association of Town Superintendents of Highways.
Now – as Erie County prepares for $27 million in road construction and maintenance this season – there’s growing sentiment within county government that it has to be more aggressive in ridding itself of some roads, specifically the smaller, residential ones, like Conner.
“I hear more and more of the homeowners on these roads complaining about the road conditions,” said John Loffredo, commissioner of Erie County’s Department of Public Works. “It’s something we can’t address – but we should address.”
“The only way I think it could be addressed is if the towns and county work something out to repair roads and get those roads maintained,” he said.
A decades-old problem
The problem started decades ago, Loffredo said, when Erie County government was still under the direction of a Board of Supervisors.
Exactly how it happened is mired in time, but county officials assume politics rather than reason dictated what roads Erie County should maintain. The result is a disjointed, hodgepodge collection of county roads that includes single blocks and dead-end streets.
As the years went by, and more people moved to the suburbs, some of these roads became major arterials for motorists traveling from one town to the next.
Now, when the county decides which roads need repairing, officials have to weigh traffic volume to get the most for their money.
That means little roads, like Conner, often get left off the list – and don’t get fixed.
“Looking at the whole system, we can’t continue on like this. There has to be a better way,” Loffredo said. “Conner really brought it to light.”
An issue beyond potholes
The problem on Conner – a north-south road that runs between County and Stahley roads – is more than just potholes.
The drainage is poor, so heavy rains and spring thaws bring flooding, said Ryan Marchiori, a Conner resident. Conner isn’t wide enough for shoulders, so it’s dangerous for pedestrians, said Katie Adams, another Conner resident.
“The county told us there’s not enough traffic to warrant the amount of work that needs to be done,” said Adams, a 22-year resident of Conner.
Adams counted at least three car accidents on Conner since October.
“As much as the neighbors think it’s in horrendous shape, there are many miles of road in worse shape that are not getting any work done this year,” Poloncarz said.
Clarence Supervisor David C. Hartzell Jr. is open to taking over Conner and maybe other county roads that run through the town.
But the supervisor expects Conner would cost Clarence more than $500,000 to fix.
And Clarence isn’t interested in taking over a deteriorated county road and then spending millions of dollars to get it into shape.
“I would have no problem taking over the road,” Hartzell said. “Basically, all we’re asking for is we get a new road. We don’t want a road we have to put $3 million into.”
Frederick Piasecki Jr., president of the town highway superintendents association in Erie County, agrees with Hartzell.
Other municipalities may consider taking over some of the smaller county roads in their towns, but with budgets tight, Piasecki can’t imagine they would want to fork over the money needed to get those roads in shape.
“I know in Orchard Park, even to consider the possibility of taking over a county road, that road would have to be brought up to town standards,” said Piasecki, the highway superintendent in Orchard Park.
“I understand that,” Poloncarz acknowledged. “Each road has to be looked at on a case by case basis.”
The residents, meanwhile, are caught in the middle.
Adams was one of the first homeowners who reached out to the county about rebuilding Conner.
That was in 2003.
Since then, the county repaved Conner about eight years ago, but it was like putting lipstick on a pig, Marchiori said.
“It’s unsafe to travel,” Adams said.
Roads ripe for takeover
This discussion goes back to at least 1994, when a county committee identified more than 150 roads – a total of 230 miles – ripe for takeover by the towns and villages.
That report specified a total of 5 miles of road in Lancaster; 6 miles in West Seneca; 7 miles in Orchard Park; 8 miles in the Town of Tonawanda; 10 miles in Hamburg; 11 miles in Amherst; 15 miles in both North Collins and Boston; and 16 miles each in Clarence, Newstead and Concord.
The list includes roads like Penora Street in Lancaster, Casey Road in Amherst, East and West Road in West Seneca, George Urban Boulevard in Cheektowaga, Versailles Road in Hamburg and Ellicott Creek Road in the Town of Tonawanda.
Right now, Erie County doesn’t have any cost projections, timetables or plans for how the transfer of roads could be done, but the issue isn’t going away.
Legislator Edward A. Rath III, the Republican who represents the residents on Conner, wants to find a compromise between Erie County and Clarence to get that road rebuilt, which may mean sharing crews and equipment.
Legislator Patrick B. Burke, a South Buffalo Democrat, also wants the county to take a closer look at the broader problem.
Burke is requesting the creation of a committee to consider county highway reform, which includes the transfer of these roads back to the towns.
“We started talking about it 20 years ago,” Burke said, “but nothing has happened.”
That’s what they’re saying on Conner.
“I realize a lot of people have bad roads, especially after this harsh winter, but our road is very dangerous,” said Marchiori, the Conner resident. “I think it’s one of the worst roads in Clarence.”