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A stretch of the Thruway that has become a traffic headache and safety concern for Buffalo-area commuters will undergo a major rehabilitation over the next year with the addition of two lanes, Gov. George E. Pataki announced Thursday.

The $60.5 million project, which also includes the rehabilitation of six bridges, is to begin in March and be completed by the end of 2002.

A fourth lane will be added in each direction to the mainline Thruway between the Niagara Thruway and Route 400 exits, which officials say will relieve congestion faced daily by commuters from the Southtowns and other travelers along the busy two-mile stretch.

"This important project will not only improve air quality and traffic safety by reducing congestion but will also have a tremendously positive impact on the local economy during construction," Pataki said in a prepared statement.

The administration estimated that hundreds of construction workers will be hired for the project, which was quietly awarded a month ago to the low bidder, Oakgrove Construction of Elma.

"It's something that needs to be done," said Assemblywoman Sandra Lee Wirth, a Republican who represents the West Seneca area through which most of that stretch of the Thruway runs. She said that portion of the Thruway has become a daily pain for thousands of commuters because of snarled traffic. "There's a whole lot of people who get upset in the morning" driving the highway, she said.

When complete, the new section will be the first eight-lane portion of the Thruway Authority's highway system upstate.

Officials say it will be the biggest project undertaken on the Thruway in Western New York since the highway was constructed in phases back in the 1950s. Without factoring in inflation, about $40 million was spent on a 1980s project on the Niagara Thruway portion, officials said.

Thruway officials vow to do the construction at night and during off-peak hours to reduce the inconvenience to the 120,000 motorists who use the stretch of highway between Exits 53 and 54 each day. The authority plans to construct permanent visual barriers along the portion, including 12-foot-high fencing and plantings, but does not intend to erect sound barriers to make it less noisy for nearby neighborhoods.

Lane shifting by motorists trying to exit and increasing congestion have made the portion of the Thruway an increasingly stressful driving experience.

"It's one of the most challenging areas in Western New York, that's for sure, for motorists to navigate," said Wally Smith, vice president of AAA of Western and Central New York. He praised the expansion but said he hopes the authority uses the project to increase efforts to monitor and report on accidents and congestion as ways to assist motorists.

Word of the expansion comes as highway contractors have been cautioning that a number of projects may be delayed or scuttled because of last fall's defeat by voters statewide of a $3.8 billion Transportation Bond Act.

But Thruway officials say the bond act's defeat will have no effect on the project because it is being financed by Thruway revenues.

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