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Removal of Skyway sought by officials even as some people savor its history

Could a lift bridge, a shorter span or even a tunnel under the Buffalo River someday replace the Skyway?

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said at a news conference Sunday that such alternatives could be less expensive than the proposed costs of rehabilitating the 60-year-old bridge.

Higgins announced approval of a Department of Transportation environmental-impact study to examine alternatives Sunday. It is the first step before any replacement can be discussed.

The Skyway has stood for 60 years as a link from the city to the Southtowns, where industries such as Bethlehem Steel once employed tens of thousands of people in Lackawanna. Elevated more than 100 feet above the Buffalo River, it was also built high enough to allow freighters to pass underneath.

But on Sunday, as kayakers passed underneath and a Canalside yoga class was conducted in its shadow, Higgins called the 1½-mile bridge a functionally obsolete reminder of a bygone era.

On the other hand, for some, it is also a Buffalo icon.

Siblings Glenn Balke, Lorraine Hans and Heidi Williamson were back in Buffalo on Sunday strolling along the waterfront with their father, Arthur Balke, of Lackawanna, who turned 90 on Saturday. All three, who grew up in Lackawanna and moved out the area decades ago, marveled at the changes on Buffalo’s waterfront but acknowledged finding some comfort in still seeing the Skyway.

“I’m delighted to see all the changes, but I don’t see (the Skyway) as an eyesore. It’s a part of the history,” said Glenn Balke, who lives in Southern California.

“I’m a ditto,” said his sister, Lorraine Hans, of Florida. “It fits the landscape.”

“I don’t drive anymore,” said the elder Balke, who still lives in Lackawanna, “but it is beautiful as you come down the bridge (into Buffalo).”

But safety also is an issue.

Higgins said the Skyway is structurally deficient and “fracture critical.” If one section were to collapse, he said, the whole bridge could come down.

Hunks of concrete were already coming down, said State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo, who joined Higgins at the news conference.

“We can invest tens of millions of dollars into rehabilitation of the Skyway or we can invest in the future,” Higgins said.

Higgins said that if alternatives are not explored, there would be no options other than to rehabilitate the Skyway. The cost just to repaint the bridge every 10 years is $15 million, he said, and a full repair and rehabilitation is estimated to cost $100 million, while the cost to build a new bridge would be $75 million to $85 million.

“Buffalo is going through a waterfront renaissance, but its infrastructure needs to be addressed,” Higgins said. “The Skyway was constructed at a time when the riverfront economy was bustling, and the Skyway provided a way for Great Lakes freighters to service the chemical, steel and grain industry, most of which is gone today.”

Kennedy said the effort began in the 1990s to find a better way to get traffic from the Inner Harbor to the Outer Harbor.

“We are looking at the amazing renaissance at the foot of Main Street, at Canalside, at the Inner Harbor and the Outer Harbor,” Kennedy said, “but the Inner and Outer Harbor need to be connected in a way that best suits the public for generations to come. We believe that there are better ways.”

Higgins agreed, saying that they would like a modern bridge which, unlike the Skyway, would provide a path for bicycles and pedestrians, as well as vehicles. The goal of the study, he said, is to find a new transportation system that would enhance the waterfront rather than obstruct it.

“Without a DOT study in place, we have one option: to rehabilitate a structure that is already deemed troubled. With federal money available, we want to have alternatives,” Higgins said, noting that other municipalities already have been removing elevated structures to bring those communities together.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com

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