Saturday, January 19, 2008 11:09 AM EST

Officials have two weeks to reach decision on Route 219

Olean Times Herald

State Department of Transportation officials have two weeks to decide whether to push ahead with efforts to extend Route 219 southward or withdraw their wetlands permit request.

Feb. 1 is the date the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has given state DOT officials to respond to criticism over the state's plan to mitigate wetlands in the path of the expressway.

"No decision has been made yet," DOT spokesman Susan Surdej said Friday when asked if the Department of Transportation would ask the Corps of Engineers to make a decision based on information that has previously been submitted, or to pull the 404 wetlands permit request and prepare another environmental impact statement.

The Buffalo office of the Corps of Engineers has been critical of DOT wetlands studies, pointing out wetlands along the next 3.5-mile expressway section scheduled to get under way this year where DOT said none existed.

U.S. Rep. John R. "Randy" Kuhl Jr., R-Hammondsport, said his office is beginning to look into possible legislative remedies to the wetlands roadblocks that threaten to halt the Route 219 expressway work.

A new Transportation Bill could be the vehicle for including language that while not precluding wetlands review, would not delay construction, the Southern Tier congressman said earlier this week.

It was nearly two years ago that Rep. Kuhl helped broker an understanding between the state Department of Transportation, Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration over wetlands issues on the first 4.2-mile expressway section south of Springville.

That wetlands issue delayed the start of construction on the first road section for a year. Construction began in April 2006, and included expanding an existing wetlands area near Hinman Valley Road in the town of Ellicottville.

State Sen. Catharine M. Young, R-Olean, said she is trying to set up a meeting soon with state Transportation Commissioner Astrid Glynn to present several hundred letters of support for Route 219 from the region.

"I'm urging everyone to work together," Sen. Young said. "This is critically important to our future. I'm hopeful we can come up with a positive solution."

The senator said she continues to work on funding for the north-south expressway, and is exploring legislative remedies along the lines Rep. Kuhl is looking into that could lead to construction of the next section between Peters Road and Snake Run Road in Ashford Hollow during the coming construction season. "That's what we've got to aim for," she added.

The Corps of Engineers' criticism of the second section of the Route 219 Expressway involves the loss of wetlands, much of which the Corps said were not adequately mapped in earlier DOT studies.

Lesta Ammons, a biologist with the Corps of Engineers who is reviewing the Route 219 wetlands mitigation plans, said Friday, "We have not heard anything" from state DOT officials. "No permit decision has been made."

Lesta Ammons, a biologist with the Corps of Engineers who is reviewing the Route 219 wetlands mitigation plans, said Friday, "We have not heard anything" from state DOT officials. "No permit decision has been made."

She said it will be up to state officials whether the Corps of Engineers bases its decision on information it already has available - which the Corps has said is deficient - or if the environmental impact statement is reopened.

The initial decision on whether the grant the state a wetlands permit will be made in the Buffalo regional Corps of Engineers office and reviewed in Washington, D.C.

As part of its wetlands mitigation plan, the Department of Transportation is enhancing and rerouting portions of McKinstry Creek in the town of Yorkshire, which is part of the Cattaraugus Creek watershed, and similar to some of the streams being impacted by the Route 219 project.

The state Department of Transportation only has Federal Highway Administration approval to go as far as the hamlet of Great Valley because the state has no agreement with the Seneca Nation of Indians to cross the Allegany Reservation east of Salamanca to hook up with Interstate 86.

The entire 28-mile expressway route is projected to cost upwards of $650 million.

The first section from Route 39 in Erie County to Peters Road in the Cattaraugus County town of Ashford - including the twin 700-foot long bridges across Cattaraugus Creek - is an $85.6 million project due to be completed in 2009.