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Peace Bridge drivers: Expect big changes

Big changes began today for traffic on the American side of the Peace Bridge.

• All traffic coming out of U.S. customs inspection will now proceed to the right.

• Baird Drive, which bisected Frederick Law Olmsted’s Front Park en route to Porter Avenue, will be eliminated, along with its traffic light.

• A new Porter Avenue roundabout and ramp will carry motorists to the Peace Bridge, on to the northbound Thruway or to LaSalle Park.

Those, and other changes to the traffic pattern around the bridge, are part of the $56.7 million “Gateway Connections Improvement Project.”

“This milestone is a victory for the entire region that will help improve access and traffic flow on the American side of the bridge, as well as improve the quality of life for residents with the restoration of Front Park, one of the great gems of the region,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in a statement last week hailing the project.

The project is designed to improve traffic flow both to and from the bridge in an effort to promote efficiency and reduced idling as well as the restoration of nearly 4 acres of the city’s historic Front Park. It also will provide better quality of life for neighbors.

Not everyone from the neighborhood is on board, though.

“It’s putting lipstick on a pig,” said Kathleen Mecca, a longtime neighborhood activist who has fought for more than two decades for an improved Peace Bridge plaza. “That expression is kind of old now, but when I started using it, it wasn’t.”

Mecca said the new configuration doesn’t go nearly far enough to reduce truck traffic and improve the air in the area – and with it, the neighborhood’s health.

Mecca’s Niagara Gateway Columbus Park Association lost a court decision to halt the Gateway project in the interest of environmental justice.

“Our position remains unchanged,” Mecca said. “We feel that to improve the quality of life and environmental health of this community, the 4,000 trucks have to be moved to another crossing.”

Mecca said at least some should have been shifted, or leaders could have insisted on a covered, green-friendly plaza with specialized air filtration modeled after another U.S. port-of-entry at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

“Instead of putting public health first, they put special interests first,” Mecca said. “It was a shell game – they took traffic from one neighborhood and put it in another.”

But local public officials are convinced the reconfigured traffic pattern will help the health and aesthetics of the neighborhood and Olmsted’s park.

“This announcement represents great progress for the members of our community,” said Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown. “This new ramp opening and the closure of Baird Drive will allow residents and visitors to truly enjoy Front Park as Olmsted envisioned it.”

Sam Hoyt, chairman of the Peace Bridge Authority and regional president of Empire State Development, said removing Baird Drive also will end conflicting traffic patterns at the plaza, along with a lot of the problems associated with them.

“The elimination of Baird Drive will result in the removal of traffic lights at the intersection of the plaza, resulting in less stop-and-go traffic and less emissions from idling vehicles,” Hoyt said. “It will also result in the ability to reconfigure the U.S. plaza for trucks entering the U.S., reducing congestion both within the plaza and on the Peace Bridge itself.”

For the next couple of weeks, you’ll have two choices to make after clearing customs on the U.S. side after traveling from Canada: taking a ramp to the Niagara Thruway heading southbound or wrapping around the plaza heading north on Sheridan Terrace to Niagara Street.

By the end of this month, or early next, a new ramp allowing traffic direct access to the Niagara Thruway heading northbound will open.

You’ll be able to access the Peace Bridge heading to Canada from either direction on the Niagara Thruway, or at the Porter Avenue ramp off the roundabout.

“It will be a free-flow traffic condition,” said Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority.

And a free-flow walking condition from Busti Avenue into Front Park.

Baird Drive will be removed and grass will be planted in its place, restoring 1½ acres of historic parkland that was lost to the road in 1952, said Stephanie Crockatt, executive director of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy.

“If you cross Busti Avenue, there will be nothing but grass all the way to Front Park’s terrace,” Crockatt said.

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com

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