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Speed limit lowered to 30 after deadly Delaware Park accident

The speed limit on part of the Scajaquada Expressway was reduced from 50 mph to 30 mph Sunday and additional traffic safety measures were imminent just a day after a car jumped the curb, crossed a grassy median into Delaware Park and killed a 3-year-old boy.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo directed state Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald to immediately lower the speed limit and to install “park-appropriate” guardrails where the expressway passes through Delaware Park.

“I am deeply saddened to learn of the tragic car crash in Buffalo on Saturday that claimed the life of a young child and severely injured another,” Cuomo wrote in a letter released Sunday afternoon. “While law enforcement agencies are still investigating the circumstances surrounding this terrible crash, it is clear that immediate action needs to be taken to improve safety for motorists and pedestrians on the portion of the Scajaquada Expressway that passes through Delaware Park.”

In his letter, Cuomo also directed the department to install speed messaging boards to alert drivers of the change, which is effective immediately.

The abrupt changes come after a Chevy Malibu drove across the grass from the Scajaquada to the park’s Ring Road at noontime Saturday, killing Maksym Sugorovskiy, leaving his 5-year-old sister, Stephanie, in critical condition at Women & Children’s Hospital and slightly injuring their mother, Mary.

The male driver, who was seen kneeling and sobbing after the accident, was taken into custody and questioned but was later released, officials said at a City Hall news conference late Sunday. The driver was cooperative with police, said Lt. Thomas J. Leatherbarrow, who heads the Buffalo Police Accident Investigation Unit. No charges have been filed, but the investigation is continuing, he said.

“It is not out of the ordinary for us to take somebody into custody, speak with them, and then release them pending further tests and further investigation,” Leatherbarrow said.

As officials were holding the conference, crews from the state DOT were placing new signs and message boards along the expressway. “I am very pleased that the governor has taken such swift action,” said Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown.

City public works crews on Monday morning were scheduled to place temporary barriers between the park and expressway while the state DOT prepares a permanent solution, said Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak. “We anticipate this to go very quickly,” he said.

Brown called Saturday’s accident a “freak occurrence.”

“As we have checked, something like this has not happened in the past and we want to make sure that it doesn’t happen in the future,” he said.

Mark Cantor, uncle of Mary Sugorovskiy and great-uncle of Maksym and Stephanie, offered thanks for the changes on behalf of the children’s mother.

“She’s grateful to the governor, the city, for the implementation of this immediate change in the traffic law on the Scajaquada,” Cantor said. “She’d love to see a guardrail up. She doesn’t want this to happen to anybody else.”

Cantor said the family was a little bit surprised at the state’s fast response and credited his daughter, Rachel, who contacted the Governor’s Office on Sunday. “We were surprised that it happened so fast,” he said. “She knows how to press the right buttons and got it done. I was amazed.”

Officials have not said that speed played a role in Saturday’s fatal crash and Leatherbarrow declined to comment Sunday on a possible cause. But Buffalo government and community leaders are continuing to talk about the need for additional radical changes to slow down the Scajaquada and improve public safety.

Critics, led by Parkside neighborhood residents and the Olmsted Parks Conservancy, have long argued that the road needs to be either eliminated or converted to a lower-speed parkway for leisurely travel, rather than maintained as a major thoroughfare connecting the Kensington Expressway with the Niagara Thruway.

“Nobody thinks it’s a good idea to have an expressway in the middle of the Olmsted park,” Delaware Common Council Member Michael LoCurto said Sunday.

Concerns extend beyond just the highway itself.

“We’ve been concerned for years over the safety of not only the (Scajaquada Expressway), but all of our roadways in Parkside,” said Amber Small, executive director of the Parkside Community Association. “It’s these things we’re trying to work on to prevent, because we have one of the busiest neighborhoods in Western New York. We have families coming to the park, coming to the zoo. We cannot have this level of traffic through that neighborhood. It’s extremely unsafe.”

LoCurto noted that he and representatives of the Parkside community and Olmsted Parks Conservancy, along with other officials, have been meeting with the state Department of Transportation for over five years to discuss concerns about the Scajaquada (Route 198), which is a state highway. He and others suggest putting in bike lanes, pedestrian access and even curbside parking, to restore the Olmsted parkway vision.

Those concepts were part of initial discussions several years ago, and LoCurto said that was “an alternative that most people were happy with.” But as time went on, “that alternative disappeared,” causing a community outcry that prompted a public meeting convened by Assemblyman Sean Ryan.

He said the meeting Ryan held, at SUNY Buffalo State, ended with an expectation that the DOT was supposed to “do some more studies and report back to the community,” but that hasn’t happened.

Ryan, in a statement Sunday, thanked the governor for the speed limit reduction and said he would meet with DOT officials Monday in Albany to initiate quick implementation of a plan to downgrade the Scajaquada.

In response to the accident, Kerri Machemer created a Facebook group called Parents for a Safe Delaware Park. Machemer’s goals for the group: To reduce Parkside to a single lane in each direction, change the Scajaquada from an expressway to a parkway and petition city and park officials to add a barrier along that stretch of Ring Road.

Machemer, who said via email that she was a mother of two young children, organized a vigil and a march at 7 p.m. Tuesday for the victims of Saturday’s accident

“I’m just a mother who is concerned for the safety of all citizens who enjoy the park,” Machemer said via email. “There has been enough studies done. It is time for change.  The cost of even one life is too high a price to pay.”

News Staff Reporter Christopher Jasper contributed to this report. email: jepstein@buffnews.com and jpopiolkowski@buffnews.com