WASHINGTON — A trillion dollars goes a long way, and the trillion that a bipartisan group of senators wants to spend rebuilding America would rebuild parts of Buffalo in unexpected ways.
Thousands of local homes could be weatherized. Border crossings could see big improvements. An unprecedented sum of money could be spent cleaning up the Great Lakes and protecting their shorelines. Long-contaminated land could be cleaned up and revitalized. And broadband internet access could finally become a reality throughout the region.
And while the compromise bill fell far short of what Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, wanted in terms of investment in highways and lead water pipe replacement, he acknowledged that the measure could boost the region in myriad ways.
"There's some real opportunity here," he said.
All of that opportunity here depends, of course, on Congress passing the measure — which is no certainty. Some Senate Republicans worry that the Congressional Budget Office found last week that the deal will increase the federal deficit by $256 billion. And some House progressives think the deal doesn't go far enough.
But no matter what you think of it, the infrastructure bill is a 2,701-page tome whose fine print reveals big spending that could benefit Buffalo. Here's a closer look at what some of that fine print reveals.
A weatherization windfall
A few hundred homes in Buffalo get new insulation or modern furnaces every year thanks to the federal Weatherization Assistance Program. But under the infrastructure bill, that number could increase more than tenfold.
That's because the program, which serves seniors, the disabled and low-income families, would get a $3.5 billion infusion, up from its current annual budget of about $300 million.
A similar infusion amid the Obama-era economic stimulus meant that Neighborhood Housing Services of South Buffalo was able to weatherize about 1,400 housing units all across Buffalo, compared with about 180 a year now, said Shyrl Duderwick, the agency's executive director. Other local nonprofits that take part in the weatherization program would be able to boost their efforts in the same way.
Duderwick said the program's expansion would mean her agency could revisit homes it improved 15 years ago or more and install more modern technology that would cut energy use and utility bills.
And Ryan Undercoffer, chief community development officer of the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center of Western New York, said: "It's exciting to see this type of investment in weatherization on the table. Two thirds of low-income families in the U.S. are spending more than 6% of their income on energy costs. During the winter in Western New York, it can be much higher than that. Additional investment could grow programs like ours and help to ease that burden."
Boosting the border
Western New York is always looking for ways to improve its border crossings, and the infrastructure bill would provide a pot of money to do just that.
Some $3.85 billion would be set aside for improving land ports of entry, and it's possible that some of that funding could be allocated to projects at the Peace Bridge, the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge and other local border crossings.
In addition, the bill orders a study of the improvements that could be made in cross-border rail service between the U.S. and Canada — including the possibility of building a "pre-clearance" facility for freight traveling across the border.
And while the infrastructure bill includes no specific plans for border improvements and no targeted location for that pre-clearance facility, Higgins thinks the border money will clearly benefit the Buffalo region.
"No community in America is better positioned to be able to take advantage of this than Buffalo and Niagara Falls," he said.
Great Lakes improvements
The infrastructure package also includes several measures that would boost the federal investment in the Great Lakes, starting with $1 billion for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the effort that resulted in the cleanup of the Buffalo River. That's more than three times what that program gets in a typical year.
"Federal investments to restore the lakes have been producing results, yet serious threats remain," said Laura Rubin, director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. "Poisoned drinking water, closed beaches, contaminated fish, and unaffordable water bills continue to impact people in cities and towns across the region, which underscores the need to address these urgent problems now, before they get worse and more costly to solve."
The Great Lakes Initiative funding is just part of what the bill would do for the region. The infrastructure bill sets aside an additional $11.6 billion in construction funding and another $4 billion in operations and maintenance funding, as well as $150 million for research. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, said some of that money could go toward:
— Completion of the new north breakwall in the Buffalo Harbor, which was severely damaged by storms in October 2019, as well as replacement of the south breakwall.
— Improvements at the Blackrock Channel and Tonawanda Harbor, including replacement of the lower canal lock gates.
— Engineering and design for repairs to the Dunkirk Harbor Outer breakwall as well as to the West Pier at Wilson Harbor.
— Completion of the Great Lakes Coastal Resiliency Study, which aims to find ways to prevent the sort of flooding that has plagued the Lake Ontario shoreline in recent years.
The bill also includes $429 million in U.S. Coast Guard construction. Some of that money could be used for an ongoing improvement project at the Coast Guard's facilities in Buffalo.
The infrastructure bill also includes an infusion of environmental cleanup and clean-energy funds that could come in very handy in Western New York. Most notably, the bill would add:
— $3.5 billion in funding to clean up Superfund hazardous waste sites, of which there are 19 in the eight counties of Western New York.
— $2.7 billion for cleanup of brownfields, other sites where pollution could hamper development. There are still 181 federally designated brownfield sites in Erie and Niagara counties alone.
— $10 billion to address "emerging contaminants" such as PFAs. Otherwise known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, these contaminants have been found at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.
— $8 billion for the creation of regional hydrogen hubs. Schumer has been pushing for the creation of a hydrogen clean energy facility at the Western New York STAMP site in Genesee County.
Schumer said he is confident that plenty of that money will make its way to Western New York.
"This massive federal investment will not only ensure that municipalities will not have to take on debt to clean up their communities, but also create jobs and stimulate local economies in the process," he said.
Politicians have been promising to bring fast, reliable internet service to every community in America since the last century, but the infrastructure bill includes the funding that could actually do it.
Some $42.5 billion would be set aside for broadband grants to expand high-speed service nationwide. Another $14.2 billion would go to create an "Affordable Connectivity Program" aimed at cutting the cost of service for poor families. And $8 billion more would go to several smaller broadband initiatives.
Higgins said all that funding should finally be able to bring high-speed service to all of Western New York.
"If we cannot provide first-quality high-speed internet services to every neighborhood in Buffalo, this would represent an epic failure on the part of our community's ability to spend this infusion of federal money," he said.
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