About a week and half ago, Senator Tim Kennedy sponsored a roundtable forum at D’Youville College to put the spotlight on a huge issue impacting this area – the shortchanging of millions upon millions of dollars in transportation funding allocation for road repairs, improvements and capital projects.

What exactly was that impact? A staggering $167-million just for the fical year 2008-09, according to calculations that were attributed to “human error”. What this meant was that dollars which should have gone to Region 5, which is the NYSDOT district for most of Western New York, instead was parsed out to downstate interests.

The testimony of the assembled speakers was predictable – a who’s who of DPW types and engineers from the jurisdictions across Western New York, spoke of the decay of roads and bridges and the economic detriments that is causing for this area. We heard stories of bridges in the Town of Lancaster that are so degraded, that the school district will not send their busses filled with kids across those spans. We heard of entire roadways in Chautauqua County caved in and closed, needing more than just emergency repair.

Also testifying at the round table were representatives of private industry and a leader from the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 17, who quantified the dollar impact of lost jobs, wages, and the lack of multiplier effect on the region’s economy.

Two observations jumped out to me as I attended and listened to the entire forum.

First – even though the entire WNY State Legislature was invited to attend and take part in the discussion, only one of Tim Kennedy’s colleagues, a freshman Assemblyman who has only been in office for seven weeks, joined Kennedy on the dais. Granted, most of the other legislators sent staffers or representatives to monitor the event, but it bears notice that incumbents, or more likely, now retired state senators sitting in office may have been asleep at the switch while WNY got shortchanged so badly. Mind you, the purpose of Kennedy’s putting the onus on this issue was not to call out other elected representatives, but a stronger voice from a unified WNY delegation moving forward will do wonders to correcting these inequities and bring back the dollars from downstate.

Second – a speaker from the Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council, a gentleman named Hal Morse, offered commentary which was weak and disappointing. Here is an agency empowered with the cohesive, regional transportation planning responsibility, yet when he spoke, he offered no insight to ambitious plans which would be so important to the economic growth of this region, instead framing his agency’s role as to move the paperwork along and get the potholes filled.

To Mr. Morse and his agency – yeah everyone in this area is weary of the Bass Pros and the rocket-to-the-moon silver bullet ideas, but there are several grand projects on the table which demand yours and everyone else’s attention. Want a laundry list? The completion of the US-219 corridor to I-86; the long stalled Peace Bridge project, Metrorail expansion to Cheektowaga, Amherst and the Tonawandas. These are just a few that stand out.

At the top of the list? The funding and construction of a grade level bridge connecting the Inner Harbor to the Outer Harbor. That infrastructure improvement alone will open up thousands of acres of vacant land on the waterfront to easy access and private development. Once open, the sky is the limit.

I spoke to Sen. Kennedy on this very issue following the conclusion of the round table. Tim gets it. He understands the importance of waterfront development, and has been hands on with Congressman Brian Higgins on this important issue which impacts all of us here in this region. Let’s hope he keeps his eye on the ball.

Kudos to Tim Kennedy and his staff (again) for their leadership and foresight in putting this forum together. It’s amazing how a freshman legislator can get so much accomplished in such a short time.