By Patrick Healy, Managing Editor
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited Buffalo last Friday to tout $55 million in federal funds to help cover the Kensington Expressway. As part of the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law’s “Reconnecting Communities” program, the money will supplement over $1 billion in state funds to turn Route 33 between Dodge and Sidney streets into a six-lane tunnel, with green space above to mimic the formerly tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly Humboldt Parkway.
In the early morning, Buttigieg, local, state and other federal officials met with community members and interest groups for a roundtable discussion about the deleterious effects of the Kensington Expressway on East Buffalo. The officials then migrated to the Buffalo Museum of Science for a press conference.
The science museum briefing began with remarks by Hamlin Park Community and Taxpayer Association President Stephanie Barber Garter, who said she had never seen such unity among federal officials in answering the community’s cries for investment. Garter was joined by about 30 seated members of the Hamlin Park community. In a phrase parroted by the subsequent parade of prominent politicians, Garter called Friday “a great day” for her community.
State officials spoke next. Governor Kathy Hochul, warming up the audience with her trademark “Go Bills,” highlighted her administration's billion-dollar investment in the project. State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes echoed Hochul’s commitment before introducing Congressman Brian Higgins, the first of four federal officials to speak. All praised U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) for his work in securing the federal money for Buffalo.
According to Higgins, Senator Schumer is “one of the most consequential [U.S. Senate] majority leaders in the last century.” U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said there was “no way” Buffalo would have gotten the federal money without her fellow U.S. Senator from New York.
Schumer, the top-ranking senator in the nation, took credit for the funding and unintentionally echoed Canisius President Steve Stoute’s stock phrase by calling for the Hamlin Park community to “rise up” to take advantage of this opportunity. Schumer declared that “for decades, the 33 stood as a concrete symbol of the city’s racial division,” but now “Buffalo is a model of how America can fix past mistakes.” Summarizing in standard Schumerian rhetoric, the senator said “this is a big win — you’re gonna see more of them in the future.”
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the 2020 presidential candidate whose endorsement of Joe Biden later earned him a spot in the president’s cabinet, capped the conference. After praising Schumer and the other assembled officials as well as President Joe Biden, Buttigieg proclaimed that “infrastructure can divide as surely as it can connect. … No one here today is responsible for creating this situation, but all of us are responsible for doing what we can in our time to repair it.”
The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg acknowledged Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and emphasized that the grant to Buffalo is the largest of the 45 grants awarded under the Reconnecting Communities program. Speaking on behalf of the federal government, Buttigieg said, “We are supportive of the state’s efforts, not just with heartfelt words of encouragement but with $55 million.”
While Governor Kathy Hochul exited the conference right after her remarks, other officials stayed to answer questions from reporters.
Buttigieg answered questions about the feasibility of light rail in Buffalo and the safety of Western New Yorkers after recent railroad accidents across the country. Schumer jumped in to add that there is $38 billion in federal money available for investments in light rail, hinting at his next pet project. Buttigieg more cautiously said that “we do have means for communities and states to come to us to share their [light rail] vision” with the federal government. As for the recent accidents, progress was what Buttigieg pledged: “Safety of the rail system has improved dramatically, but we take nothing for granted.”
Speaking to a scrum of reporters afterward, Schumer stood in front of a physical rendering of the plan and went into greater detail about the project’s specifics. The Senate majority leader shot down concerns about potential lawsuits that could stall the plan, which is set to begin in fall 2024. “Money from the state, money from the feds — it’s all there. Sometimes people go to court and sue on a lot of stuff, but they [the federal government] have checked this out pretty good and I don’t think anybody will sue.”
The fifth-term senator also brushed back concerns that the grant could fall though. “I always try to bring the president and the secretary here. Once they come, there’s no turning back.” Though Schumer and other officials departed quickly after the conference, Buttigieg took pictures with random people outside the museum, including with the present scribe, much to the dismay of Buttigieg’s bodyguards and a blocked line of cars.