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2B or not 2B?

Public meeting set to discuss Scajaquada Expressway improvements

Next Wednesday, June 26, Assemblyman Sean Ryan is holding a public meeting at 5pm in the West Room of the Bulger Communication Center at Buffalo State College. The topic at hand will be the future design of NYS Route 198—the Scajaquada Expressway.

If you’re experiencing déjà vu while reading that, it’s likely because the idea of downgrading the 50-miles-per-hour highway that bisects Delaware Park has been kicked around for more than a decade. A draft final report and expanded project proposal was released in 2004, under the auspices of the City of Buffalo Department of Public Works and the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT)—working in conjunction with the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council. The goal of that study was to “create a facility that is in harmony with the surrounding community character and improve transportation service, performance, safety and efficiency for all modes of travel.”

Scajaquada Expressway

A view from the 2004 report, as the roadway still looks today.

An Option From 2004

Also from 2004, a vizualization of how the same piece of roadway could benefit from traffic-calming features like a 30-miles-per-hour speed limit, bike lanes, sidewalks, and crosswalks—similar to what is proposed in the current option “2B.”

What NYSDOT is Currently Offering

Center guardrails replaced by grass and trees. Speed reduced by five or 10 miles per hour. No bike lanes, sidewalks, or crosswalks.

Built in the early 1960s, when Buffalo’s population was double what it is today, the Scajaquada Expressway supplanted two former streets—Scajaquada Drive and Humboldt Parkway. Landfill that was generated during its construction was dumped into the quarry gardens of Delaware Park, and was also used to completely fill a substantial area of what is now called Hoyt Lake.

The current expressway also runs past the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Burchfield Penney Art Center, the Buffalo History Museum, and Buffalo State College. The Buffalo Zoo is just a short walk from the 198, up Parkside. The Richardson Complex is a short walk down Elmwood from the 198.

Although the issue has languished on the back burner for many years, various stakeholders have continued to meet with NYSDOT, and a timeline is in place for going ahead with improvements to the 198. However, those who had hoped for a meaningful change to the roadway that would, for example, afford pedestrians places to cross from one side of Delaware Park to the other, were disappointed at the alternatives offered by NYSDOT at a March 21 meeting.

Among the alternatives ruled out by NYSDOT is one labeled “2B,” which would make the expressway a boulevard with traffic signals, reduced lane widths, and a 30 mph speed limit—like all Buffalo streets.

The selection process was based on several criteria:

• Does it provide a non-expressway solution?

• Would it improve overall safety?

• Would it promote harmony with the community character and natural environment?

• Would it result in improved visual connectivity?

• Would it promote increased opportunities for public access?

• Would the current level of vehicular operation and mobility be maintained or improved?

The “2B” option did as well or better than the three options that did meet with NYSDOT’s approval—with one minor exception. It was deemed to be less safe than the other three, even though its speed limit would be 10-15 miles per hour slower than the favored alternatives.

For months, NYSDOT has refrained from returning calls from Artvoice asking for an explanation as to how this could be. Those who attended the March stakeholder meeting say NYSDOT is concerned about maintaining the current level of service to drivers.

“DOT says it’s going to cause traffic congestion,” says former Milwaukee mayor and president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, John Norquist. “They did a lot of damage to Buffalo already. There’s no agency that’s done more damage to the city of Buffalo than the New York State DOT. The entire waterfront is covered with grade-separated highways. The city’s population is half what it was, and they still think that traffic congestion is the biggest problem. It’s ridiculous.

“You know, the DOT treats Buffalo like it’s a rural area,” Norquist contnues. “Traffic congestion is not a big problem in Buffalo. It is a big problem in really prosperous places. Like Detroit at the end of World War II, there was a lot of congestion. They had a lot of jobs and they had two million people living there, and they followed the kind of example that New York DOT believes in, which is the only thing that matters is to move vehicles quickly. And now Detroit has 700,000 people.

“They are totally obsessed on way too narrow an objective,” he adds. “Buffalo doesn’t need to have all of its traffic moving fast all the time. That should be the lowest priority. I mean, look at Greenwich Village. It’s very slow-moving around there, but there’s tons of money and jobs. The New York DOT tried to ruin it. They tried to run a freeway right through the middle of Greenwich Village, and if they’d succeeded you could drive faster there today. But the whole place would be worth a lot less. The State of New York would collect less in taxes.”

Norquist is a noted expert on urban design, and frequently lauded for removing the expressway that ran near Milwaukee’s riverfront, rejuvenating the area. June 4-7, 2014, the 22nd Annual Congress for the New Urbanism will be held in Buffalo, assembling top designers, developers, planners, architects, and advocates of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods.

“The New York DOT seems to look at the City of Buffalo as a great place to drive trucks fast. They view it as a place to drive through. It has no value unto itself. They look at it like it’s an obstacle. Like it’s a rotten place that they just need to blow through as fast as possible. And they need to stop. Is it really important for somebody who wants to drive a truck from Hamilton, Ontario to Cleveland, to drive really fast through Buffalo? Is that Buffalo’s role?” Norquist asks, with an ironic laugh. “People in the City of Buffalo need to stop letting them do this. They need to show up at the meeting.”

Assemblyman Ryan’s website was flooded with nearly 30 pages of comments in the week after he sought public input on the issue—the vast majority in favor of downgrading the highway to something more in keeping with its location. As for the inconvenience to motorists, changing the speed limit from 50 to 30 miles per hour would only add three minutes of travel time for any vehicle covering the entire length of the short route. NYSDOT has been invited to attend Wednesday’s meeting, and all public comments will be shared with the agency.

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