By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins wants the New York Power Authority to pay for the removal of the Robert Moses Parkway.
Using the Niagara Gorge as a backdrop while standing in front of an elevated section of the parkway near the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, the Buffalo Democrat, whose Congressional district now includes the city of Niagara Falls, announced plans Thursday to seek $120 million from the power authority to finance removal efforts along the northern and southern parkway sections.
Higgins described the “poorly utilized roadway” as both a physical and economic barrier to the “renaissance” of Niagara Falls while suggesting that the authority should pay for the implementation of community-based removal plans.
“We believe that will unleash the extraordinary potential of Niagara Falls, N.Y. as a great waterfront city drawing those millions of people who visit Niagara Falls, Canada every single year,” Higgins said.
Higgins outlined his proposal in a 14-page plan called “The Niagara Falls Waterfront: NYPA’s Responsibility for the Robert Moses Parkway.” The plan includes historical information about the roadway, the authority’s role in its development and data on authority revenues. He delivered a copy of his proposal to NYPA Chairman John Koelmel on Thursday.
The congressman said the authority evicted residents through eminent domain and built the highway that now stands as a barrier between the city and the water. As a result, he believes the authority should pay to remove the road and rebuild the area.
A spokesperson from the power authority declined to comment on Higgins’ plan, but later sent out a two-sentence statement.
“We just received Congressman Higgins’ letter on the Robert Moses Parkway and will review it,” the statement said. “We will respond in a timely manner and will continue to have an open dialogue with the congressman as we have in the past.”
The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is expected to reveal its recommended options for the future of the northern section later this month. A consultant working with state parks presented a total of six options for the roadway for public review, including options to leave it as is and total removal from the Falls to Lewiston.
The southern section has been eyed for several changes aimed at making it more pedestrian friendly and less of an obstacle to waterfront access.
Higgins stopped short of endorsing any specific project, saying he’ll support whatever the community decides on both sections, while adding that his effort will be “entirely consistent” with the state parks plan.
“I think that’s why this announcement is important, because it’s timely,” Higgins said.
Higgins said the key to any plan is the money needed to carry it out.
Only $5 million is currently available for the south section redesign - too little to carry out the actual construction. The $120 million request by his office represented an estimate of what he believes will be needed to make the sort of progress on renewal efforts that he believes the city needs and deserves.
“This is something that’s very doable,” Higgins said.
The congressman called on the authority to finance the effort because he said it “certainly” has the resources to “make it happen.”
The Niagara Power Project in Lewiston has been key to the authority’s profitability, according to Higgins who said more than $1 billion from the facility has been used in the past six years to fund operations elsewhere within the authority’s system.
In 2008 alone the authority had a surplus of $309 million, of which $236 million, or 76 percent, came from the Niagara facility, according to documents from the authority.
“We have a rightful claim to that money,” Higgins said.
Higgins said Buffalo and Niagara Falls were historically two of the strongest economies in the nation because of the unique natural resources of the Niagara River and Niagara Falls, that is until an act of congress — the Niagara Redevelopment Act passed in 1957 — reallocated the hydropower created by the river to other parts of New York and to seven other states.
“They didn’t have the right to do that,” Higgins said.
Higgins, who was instrumental in negotiating a 2007 licensing agreement between the power authority, said he can use the relicensing of a downstate power project as leverage to get NYPA to pay for the removal of the parkway.
The authority needs federal approval to continue to operate facility, which Higgins said loses money and is subsidized by the Niagara Power Project.
Higgins used a similar relicensing need as leverage when negotiating the relicensing agreement that ultimately led to the financing of substantial improvements along the waterfront in Buffalo.
“We will continue to be very aggressive in advancing this idea because it makes a lot of sense,” Higgins said.
“That’s what we did in Buffalo and we’re prepared to it again,” he added. “This community is worth fighting for.”
Mayor Paul Dyster said parkway removal was one of the major issues that convinced him to enter politics.
“I’ve been involved in efforts to deal with problems caused by the parkway pretty much the entire time I’ve been in public office here in Niagara Falls,” Dyster said.
Growing up in the DeVeaux neighborhood, Dyster said he experienced the barrier that the road creates first hand. People would cut holes in fencing installed by the state and cross the highway to get to the water, he said.
“Anytime somebody from the state would put that fence back up, someone from the neighborhood would cut a hole in it,” Dyster said.
Dyster appreciates the federal backing from Higgins on an issue that has been important to him for a long time, he said.
“I think it’s really great that only a few weeks into his representation of Niagara Falls he is willing to take a lead role in trying to find resources to correct this,” Dyster said.
Dyster said he agrees with the congressman’s assertion the the power authority should fund the removal of the parkway.
“This region, through the generation of hydropower, has contributed more than its fair share to the state’s coffers,” Dyster said. “I think it’s entirely appropriate for the city to seek funds to deal with issues that are in the purview of the power authority.”
Dyster said it is encouraging to have Higgins, who successfully negotiated for funding to improve Buffalo’s waterfront, in his corner.
“He’s not going to be afraid to speak up on behalf of waterfront issues in Niagara Falls,” he said.