Advocates for halting the soon-to-begin Southtowns Connector project in favor of a different plan make valid points, but in the end the argument for proceeding with the current plan is overwhelming.
Its timing is right, it has been thoroughly vetted and it's ready to go. Without it, plans to open the outer harbor to public use will be delayed by years, as could efforts to take down the Skyway. Buffalo and Erie County need this project. It's time to begin.
The state Department of Transportation plans to let bids on the project in November. The contract is to be awarded before year's end and construction is scheduled to begin in the spring. This is the real deal. The endlessly discussed, forever-delayed effort to open Buffalo's long-neglected waterfront is ready to go. Rather than trying to block the project, as some suggest they might, the project's critics should put their energies into strengthening the current plan.
Here's that plan: Using state and federal dollars, the DOT intends to turn Fuhrmann Boulevard into a beautiful, Olmsted-like parkway that provides easy access to the waterfront. While the elevated section of Route 5 would remain, hindering development and access from the east, the problem will be ameliorated with new underpasses for vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians. A new exit ramp will be built and existing ones upgraded.
Also remaining, at least for now, will be the Skyway, which many observers want to see demolished in favor of a ground-level bridge. The DOT and Rep. Brian Higgins say the existing plan does nothing to delay the possibility of tearing down the Skyway and may, in fact, enhance it.
With real progress on the connector, Higgins thinks he has a decent chance of winning funding in the 2009 federal highway bill to begin the $125 million project of pulling down the Skyway and building a new bridge. Without progress, prospects of winning that funding are radically less, he believes. The key is to begin work.
Critics of the plan, operating under the name of the Buffalo Waterfront Coalition, focus mainly on the plan's failure to do away with the elevated section of Route 5. It's a real issue, in that the road, on a strip of land elevated over its east and west shoulders, hinders access to the waterfront and discourages development. An alternative plan, studied as part of the environmental review, would have done away with it in favor of a six-lane boulevard.
But planning for this project has been an open process. It has gone on for 15 years at a cost of $6 million. The time to argue for a different approach is past. To change plans now would mean a delay of at least two years, while the DOT redesigned a vastly different project. That would delay opening of the waterfront and put off, perhaps for many years, the possibility of replacing the Skyway.
This project has won support from a variety of interests. No serious objection had been raised until recently, and while those objecting are serious people with serious observations, the simple fact is that this has been studied enough. This project may not be the perfect one, but it's a strong one, nonetheless. It will change the waterfront and, with it, Buffalo and Erie County.
That plan is doable now. Barring a suicidal lawsuit -- such things have been known to occur in Buffalo -- construction will begin in early 2008. What is more, this community has learned to trust Higgins' instincts and his leadership. It should continue to do so now.