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Plan to downgrade the Scajaquada requires a thorough public exposure

It was clear that something more had to be done with the Scajaquada Expressway. The initial reaction – overreaction, really – to a terrible accident last year imposed immediate changes to this misplaced thoroughfare, but none that could have been reasonably considered sufficient.

The question now is whether the just-announced plans to turn the road that slices through Delaware Park into a slow-speed boulevard best serves the interests of the park and the greatest number of people. It’s a question that remains unanswered.

The expressway, long hated by many in Western New York for the damage it did to historic Delaware Park, was abruptly downgraded last May after a tragic accident that took the life of a 3-year-old boy when a car jumped the curb and struck him. The speed limit was lowered to 30 mph from 50 and temporary barriers were installed. Speed enforcement since then has been aggressive.

It was a peculiar reaction, since speed seems to have had little to do with the tragedy, which began when the car’s driver fell asleep at the wheel. Because there was no protective barrier between the expressway and a pedestrian section of the park, the vehicle ran off the road and plowed into a family using the park.

Nevertheless, the accident opened the way for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to act on a goal long-sought by those who have wanted the expressway eliminated or at least downgraded. He did so the day after the May 30 accident.

Now, the state Department of Transportation has announced that as early as 2018, the expressway will be transformed into a boulevard with two lanes in each direction and intersections with stop lights rather than exit and entrance ramps. Other stop lights will be at pedestrian crossings that will allow access to the two sides of Delaware Park. In addition, temporary gateway signs will be installed at each end of the corridor and different sections of the road will be restriped and narrowed. Rumble strips will be installed along the eastbound lane at the west end of the corridor.

That the road will be downgraded appears to be a done deal, even though it will inevitably create some hardships and frustrations. Planners should keep in mind that it is still worth maintaining a comparatively easy east-west artery through the city. Some modifications should be considered while there is still time, including whether a 30 mph speed limit is necessary, or whether 40 or even 45 mph could be safely accommodated.

It will also be important to ensure that residential neighborhoods don’t become high-traffic zones. The Parkside neighborhood is among Buffalo’s most attractive; it needs to remain that way. Officials say traffic won’t just be dumped into neighborhoods, and that’s a promise that needs to be kept.

In addition, this change has to be not merely about slowing traffic, but also restoring the park, which was the No. 1 victim of the Scajaquada’s construction. Downgrading the road helps with that goal, but more should be contemplated, even though the project is already amazingly expensive – at least $100 million.

This project appears to be on a fast track, but opportunities for public comment remain, and the public should take full advantage of them. Welcome or not, this is a big change and unintended consequences are inevitable. Buffalo should approach this with its eyes open.