Guest Blogger Mark Poloncarz on Economic Recovery

An Opportunity to Correct Past Mistakes

by Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz


When President-Elect Barack Obama takes office on January 20, 2009 he will assume the presidency at a time unlike any other during recent memory. Not since the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt has a president taken office under such duress. And it could be argued that President-Elect Obama’s job is tougher than Roosevelt’s was. While Roosevelt faced the Depression, Obama will take office in a near depression and when many of our not so young men and women still find themselves fighting on two fronts in the most dangerous place in the world – the Middle East. 


While Obama may face a tougher task than Roosevelt did, I am glad to see he is following the lead of Roosevelt in proposing a mass federal investment in our crumbling infrastructure to help spur our economy.  Roosevelt knew that the best way to invigorate a depressed economy was to put people to work.  While the salaries generated by the National Recovery Act, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) didn’t in themselves end the Depression, this effort did give Americans something they did not have when he took office – hope (sound familiar?).  The CCC and WPA projects put millions to work and gave our country infrastructure projects that we still enjoy today, including Letchworth State and Chestnut Ridge Parks in western New York, to name just a few.


Last week the president-elect signaled that he will back another such investment to combat the economic malaise hovering over not just our nation, but the world. In announcing his plans he said, “we will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s. We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways, and we’ll set a simple rule – use it or lose it. If a state doesn’t act quickly to invest in roads and bridges in their communities, they’ll lose the money.”

As could be expected, since announcing his plan, local and state officials across the country have been busy compiling wish lists and noting how their region would benefit most from the receipt of billions of Federal dollars.  The U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) immediately released a report detailing a total of 11,391 infrastructure projects for 427 cities with a $73 billion price tag, which they believe would create 847,641 jobs. According to the USCM’s website, almost $172 million worth of projects are in Buffalo alone, with a projection of creating 5,144 jobs. You can view the projects here:

Not to be outdone, the National Governors Association announced a wish list of $136 billion worth of ready-to-go infrastructure projects. And they sat down with the president-elect and vice-president elect to discuss why the states, and not local governments, should be the recipients of any Federal aid through existing programs. While there are certainly viable state projects that should be funded, if this grand infrastructure investment plan is in fact effectuated, the states cannot be the only recipients. 

Local governments are the first, and often the only level of government that most people deal with on a daily basis.  It is local governments that pave roads, deck bridges, build schools and deliver water to and sewer service from our homes.  And it is local governments that are bearing the greatest risk during this economic morass as they face greater mandates from fiscally tapped states.

Erie County, like Buffalo, has potentially millions of dollars of projects that are on the drawing board. In fact, a capital budget review committee annually culls down over $200 million worth of needed projects to a more affordable $50 million.  Buffalo and Erie County must be part of President-Elect Obama’s grand investment. However, we should not just be content receiving funding for the latest road, school or bridge project on the books. Instead, as we inaugurate a current Chicagoan, we should follow the advice of a prior Chicagoan, Daniel Burnham, when he said, “make no little plan. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”


It is at this time, during this day of great need, when great opportunities present themselves. We should be looking at projects that will not only create jobs, but benefit the region for decades to come. In addition to seeking funding for current capital needs, we should use this opportunity to create a better transportation system for Erie County and correct the past mistakes that have bedeviled the region for years.


We should finally correct the mistake that ended the NFTA’s subway system at the Buffalo line by extending it to the University of Buffalo’s Amherst campus, and for that matter, build an above ground line from the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport to downtown.


We must tear down the stain on Buffalo’s skyline known as the Skyway and create the road and bridge structures that will open up the outer harbor.


We should not let a day go by without examining all past regional transportation proposals, many of which have great merit but have been sitting gathering dust for years for lack of funding, and implement the projects that will best benefit our region.


Burnham was right, now is not the time for little plans. Contrary to the belief of the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority, Erie County can borrow and pay for its current capital projects at reasonable market rates. But while these projects are necessary, they are still little plans. I say lets try to obtain Federal funding for the current small plans of the county and the city on the drawing boards, but not if it means we put at risk the grand plans that will benefit the region for decades to come.  For too long we have suffered in western New York from mediocre plans conceived by mediocre men.  Let us use this opportunity to correct past mistakes, to better the region, and for once, to not only dream big but to succeed.


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