Bridge over troubled waters: candidates weigh in on old Route 219 high-level bridge reconstruction
New York State Assembly 147th district primary contests will take place between former East Aurora Mayor Dave DiPietro against Daniel Humiston, who is also seeking office on the Independence Party ticket; Christopher Lane and David Mariacher, who is also running on the Conservative Party ticket against DiPietro. Christina Abt, who has been endorsed by the Working Family and Democratic parties, is also seeking a spot on the Independence party line against Humiston.
DiPietro said he thinks Springville “got the raw end of the deal” on the old Route 219 high-level bridge project, and added that he is going door-to-door in Springville and Concord to explain how he would have handled it differently.
“People in this community have been hit pretty hard, because the elected officials don’t feel that Springville is a big enough town,” DiPietro said, of the way the bridge reconstruction issue was handled.
“It’s all smoke and mirrors. It’s not as juicy to fix a bridge ...The squeaky wheel gets the grease and no one was willing to stick their neck out,” DiPietro continued. “And the community has been hit pretty hard, as a result.”
The bridge closed on Jan. 5 after the NYSDOT declared it unsafe for traffic, due to frozen abutment bearings that allow the bridge to expand and contract. In response to pressure from local business owners, residents and elected officials, the NYSDOT invoked an emergency contract to expedite the repairs.
The bridge was expected to re-open in late April, but crews were able to replace the frozen bearings with temporary ones, in advance of the fabrication of a new set, allowing the bridge to open to traffic several weeks ahead of schedule. On March 23, the bridge re-opened to traffic after a three-month hiatus.
State and national government officials who were in attendance at the bridge’s official re-opening, who had also been involved in advocating for NYSDOT attention, included Congressman Brian Higgins, Lee James on behalf of Congressman Tom Reed, Senator Catharine Young, Senator Patrick Gallivan and Assemblyman Kevin Smardz. Acting DOT Regional Director Darrell Kaminski conducted the event.
DiPietro said that he took issue with the way state and national officials handled the issue, noting that the appropriate New York State Department of Transportation personnel and government representatives were not contacted and that he would have “called the DOT a bunch of liars” in order to draw attention to the issue.
“I’d call them straight out, call the higher-ups, the national [representatives] and let them know this is important,” he said.
DiPietro, who said he worked with the DOT to complete East Aurora’s main street revitalization project, explained that he thought getting these projects completed was all about making the elected officials “part of the team.
“It was initiated as a $7.9 million project and ended up being a $14 million project. We brought in the DOT, thruway, state and local officials and put them on the project. We involved them in the process. I know how to work and bring people together. I do, and [the current state officials] don’t, which is why nothing got done. You’ve got to get everybody on the same page.”
DiPietro said that, if he had his way, the necessary funds to fix the bridge would have been allocated and the bridge would be “open for business.
“This is not some bridge out in the country. This is a major thoroughfare. I’d like to know why it’s not a permanent fix.”
Abt, who is seeking the Independence, Working Family and Democratic tickets, said that she “would never judge another elected official” or the way he or she handled the issue, since she was not involved, at the time.
“Until you serve, you don’t know how it would be handled,” Abt said. She referenced her familiarity with road and bridge projects at the county level and noted, “I know that a bridge is a daily concern for the community in which it is located. It is integral to that community. It’s easy to say, ‘this bridge is crucial,’ but there are probably 20 other communities in this district with the same issue, so it’s a matter of figuring out how to prioritize.”
She noted that the bipartisan work that was done to re-open the bridge in March was done by bringing together elected officials at the local, state and federal level and that it was that cooperation that ‘made a positive change back then.
“We can’t keep everything on the front burner all the time, so it would be a matter of going back to the drawing board and getting it back on that front burner,” she said.
“The No. 1 mandate of the county government is public safety, and that should be first and foremost at the state level, as well,” Abt added. “There are a lot of things clamoring for money, but when [state elected officials] decide what gets funding and what doesn’t, public safety should be the No. 1 issue.”
Lane said that he saw the Route 219 overpass and then the closing of the high-level bridge a “double shot to Springville.
“It hurt a lot of local business-owners and then, to have this difficulty with funding, is kind of a slap in the face,” Lane said. “It’s difficult to second-guess the decisions of the DOT, although we understand business owners’ concerns. The DOT needs to have plans for it. Nothing bugs me more than them building this massive structure. [The 219 overpass] is a bridge to nowhere.”
Lane, who grew up in Warsaw, noted that he “hates to drive down main streets in small towns and see businesses failing. Small businesses struggle enough,” he said.
Karen O’Hara, who owns Southtowns Rte 219 Antiques, said that she sees the negative impact of the “temporary fix” as detrimental to Springville in the long-term.
“The negative impact to businesses is not knowing when it’s going to be fixed, or if the state is going to run out of money and not maintain it,” O’Hara explained. “It’s a sinking feeling when customers come in and say, ‘Good job on getting the bridge open,’ because we don’t know how long it’s going to last. We’re in limbo.”
O’Hara, who helped spearhead local business owners’ efforts to get the bridge repaired, said that the uncertainty surrounding bridge repairs “makes a lot of businesses uncomfortable. They don’t want to invest in capital improvements and can’t budget [for the long-term], because they don’t know if the bridge is going to stay open. They’re thinking, ‘Is Springville really a viable option for me?’ and that’s going to be detrimental to Springville in the long run.”
Concord Town Supervisor Gary Eppolito said that he was confident that the possibility of the bridge’s closing was no longer a concern.
“It’s my understanding, from conversations I’ve had with the DOT, that they are keeping a lot of different options on the table,” he said. “They range from major repairs to maintenance to even a new bridge, which might be [the cheapest option]. The one thing that is not on the table is closing that bridge.”
Eppolito added that he has been in contact with Kaminski and that “I can’t say enough good things about him,” and the way the DOT has handled the issue.
“They’re very good at keeping me posted on any major developments,” he said. “I’m relatively confident that they’re aware of the economic impact of closing it and that that’s never going to happen, ever again.”
Humiston and Mariacher declined to comment by press time.