Lancaster is growing, and Cheektowaga is feeling the pain.
Traffic has accelerated as much as 174 percent in some stretches of the Losson Road-William Street corridor in Cheektowaga since the state opened the William Street interchange of the Thruway in 1992.
"It's made a big difference," said John Slomba, a William Street resident who lives near the interchange. "You can't go out of Ceil Drive at certain times of the day. I wish the state hadn't done it."
Slomba is joined by town officials who complain that Cheektowaga has become a pass-through for fast-growing Lancaster. They support a $50,000 study that could lead to a north-south relief road east of Lancaster linked to a proposed interchange on the mainline Thruway at Gunnville Road.
"We in Cheektowaga must see the same attention to the transportation needs of eastern Erie County as was provided when water and sewer services were extended to encourage the growth that now threatens to overwhelm us," said town Councilman Thomas M. Johnson Jr.
The congestion in Cheektowaga is the result of shifts in traffic flow occurring throughout the metropolitan area, experts say. The growth of office parks and shopping malls means intersuburban commuting has become as common as driving to downtown.
"It's a tough problem in the 1990s," said Edward H. Small Jr., director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Committee. "There is limited money for new connectors, so roads and neighborhood streets that were never intended to be a thoroughfare are serving that way."
There once were plans for expressways reaching into northeastern Erie County that would connect with an outer beltway, said Stan Keysa, county director of planning and development. The concept was dumped when the 1970 census indicated the county's growth was stalling.
What planners didn't anticipate, though, was that Buffalo's population would drop sharply or that a development and population boom would take off in Lancaster, Clarence and other suburbs.
The William Street exit was supposed to help Cheektowaga, State
Department of Transportation planners say. It was built to relieve north-south traffic congestion, particularly along Union Road, but the 1986 traffic projections failed to account for the rapid growth of Lancaster.
"I don't see it as a problem with the interchange," said Bill Gruber, DOT supervisor of program and project management. "What we didn't foresee was the development in Cheektowaga and Lancaster. Traffic is there because of the development."
Cheektowaga has seen modest growth, but it pales in comparison to Lancaster. More than 1,500 new homes have been built in Lancaster over the past five years, and another 2,000 are planned. Lancaster is projected to grow from 32,000 people in 1990 to 45,000 by the end of the decade.
A William Street exit was part of the original Thruway plan when it was built in the late 1950s but was shelved because of lack of money. The project was revived in 1983, and 20-year projections for its traffic impact were made in 1987. The ramp opened in September 1992.
The numbers show just how far off the state DOT was in anticipating traffic.
Traffic on William Street between the Thruway exit and Union Road was projected to grow by 57.5 percent to 29,300 vehicles daily by 2008. Instead, traffic now has reached 37,000 vehicles daily, a 100 percent increase in less than 10 years.
Traffic on Losson Road was expected to grow 15.5 percent to 6,700 vehicles daily by 2008. Instead, it now rolls by at a clip of 15,900 vehicles daily, a 174 percent increase.
"Everybody has had it up to their ears, there's so much traffic here," said Jane Wiercioch, president of the Depew-Cheektowaga Taxpayers Association. "It wasn't so much that you noticed traffic until the boom in Lancaster started. Now Losson is a shortcut for downtown."
Cheektowaga officials are afraid it could get worse. Right now, traffic going east on William after exiting the Thruway must turn right at Union Road a short distance before taking a left on Losson Road and following it until it becomes William Street again in Lancaster.
The DOT has a tentative proposal to eliminate the dogleg by building a direct connection between William and Losson, but that would require demolishing a dozen homes and building a new bridge over Cayuga Creek.
No way, said Johnson, who is chairman of the Cheektowaga Town Board Transportation Committee.
"This would simply increase the numbers of vehicles that choose the William Street ramp, since the bottleneck or jog in the trail would be removed," he said. "It would turn Losson Road into an expressway, if not a raceway."
Gruber cautioned that the bypass linking the two roads is unlikely because of the expense of crossing the creek and opposition of the town. A more affordable alternative, he said, would be creating additional left-turn lanes on Union to speed traffic flow.
Johnson and others believe the ultimate solution will be to build a new road for Lancaster residents that will steer them away from Cheektowaga. The Niagara Frontier Transportation Committee, the designated planning agency for the area, is in the early stage of conducting what is called the Lancaster Transportation Corridor Study.
It is funded by $25,000 from the committee and $25,000 from Lancaster. The study should take nine months and is intended to identify a corridor route so the town can set aside property for it. Any construction is several years and many millions of dollars away.
"The main thing is to tie the corridor up to avoid any more construction," said Robert Giza, Lancaster supervisor. "It should have been done years ago. As pressure builds, the demand will grow."