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'Skyway is closed': Words commuters hate to hear

Southtowners sneer at snowfall, embrace lake-effect blasts with bravado, and trade winter war stories with pride.

But when the word comes down that the Skyway and Route 5 are closed - again - at commuting time, even the hardiest road warrior with four-wheel drive starts dreaming of a winter hideaway in the Northtowns, where for the most part, a dusting of snow can be blown off the SUV with a sneeze.

"It's a nightmare," said Bill Palisano of Lakeview. "If you know early enough, you go onto Ohio street. But it’s a nightmare."

Bill Palisano of Lakeview says commutes become a nightmare when Skyway is closed. (Barbara O'Brien/Buffalo News)

Route 5 has closed five times and the Skyway has closed 10 times between Jan. 1, 2014 through Dec. 31, 2016 for weather- or accident-related incidents, according to the Niagara International Transportation Technology Coalition, which provides provides traffic and roadway information to improve traffic flows.

Since November, the Skyway and/or Route 5 have been closed six times.

The longest closing was due to the fire at the former Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna Nov. 9 . That forced the closing of Route 5 for three days. Many motorists headed to the Niagara section of the Thruway or South Park Avenue to get into and out of Buffalo, adding to the congestion on those roads.

Then a propane tanker overturned Dec. 21 on Route 5, not far from the steel plant fire, closing the road for most of the day. A gas station fire closed the road again briefly Jan. 3.

With recent closings for fires or accidents, combined with the expected weather closings, driving on the Skyway and Route 5 seems to have produced more headaches than usual.

"It doesn't happen very often, maybe once or twice a year," said Athena Hutchins, executive director of NITTEC. "Usually it's a snow event."

About 40,000 vehicles travel every day from Hamburg, Evans, Brant, North Collins, Eden and other points south of Buffalo into the city, and it has been a chore the past several months.

"I work in the city, and when I see the snow coming, and I get a call from my wife that its really coming down hard, if there's any inclination that they're going to close the Skyway, I'll leave work at two o'clock. It's just a nightmare to get home," said Palisano, who works in North Buffalo.

The commute for Southtowners could get better - or perhaps worse - in the future if proposals to replace the Skyway with a lift bridge or run a light rail commuter train from Hamburg to Buffalo become a reality.

But for now, it doesn't matter if it's a fire or a winter storm, the alternate routes don't seem to handle the drive-time traffic as well as the four-lane highway.

Kenneth Byrd of Derby, who works near Bailey Avenue and Clinton Street, said the first thing he does when he hears the road is closing is think of another way to get home.

Kenneth Byrd of Derby looks for alternate routes. (Barbara O'Brien/Buffalo News)

"Sometimes I take Harlem or go all the way down to Transit. I try to stay off the main roads when it's like that, there's too much traffic. They divert all the traffic from one area to the other," Byrd said.

That's what everyone should do, according to Hutchins.

"Most people only know one way to and from work. Everyone needs to be a little prepared for alternate routes. There might be another route that is less congested," she said. "Sometimes you have to go north to go east, to go south. You think you're going out of your way, but you're not."

Everyone has a favorite way to get around the gridlock, and some don't want to give up their secret route. For those headed into the Southtowns from Buffalo, it could be Hopkins Street to South Park in Lackawanna, then a couple turns to get to Electric Avenue into Blasdell. Heading north, it could be the Martin Avenue exit off Route 179, down Lake Avenue to Abbott Road, or McKinley Parkway to Abbott.

Harry Lach of Hamburg says there's always a way to get around. (Barbara O'Brien/Buffalo News)

If Route 5 is closed at Athol Springs because Lake Erie waves crashed across the road and the water froze into an icy glaze, that's easy to get around, said Harry Lach of Hamburg.

"If you know it's closed here, you live in the area, there's all these other roads that cut over that are real quick that there's no traffic on, where if you come over here, it will be traffic like crazy," he said. "But you know it's there. You go ... over to Route 20, go to 75."

After 2018, authorities may not have to close that stretch of Route 5 by Athol Springs anymore because of water splashing from Lake Erie onto the road. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is planning to issue a contract to construct a stone revetment that will keep the splash of the waves from hitting the road.

Planners have been studying better access for commuters to the Southtowns for decades. Does the Southtowns connector sound familiar?

That was a grand expressway designed to take traffic off Route 5, and would have used a rail corridor to link downtown Buffalo with Route 219 through Lackawanna. That project was declared dead in 2000, after at least a dozen years of study.

There are other grand plans:

Rep. Brian M. Higgins, D-Buffalo, for years has called for the removal of the Skyway to open up the inner and outer harbors for development. A lift bridge or tunnel could carry motorists over the Buffalo River, he has suggested. The Skyway is structurally deficient and “fracture critical,” he said last July.

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

Hamburg Mayor Thomas J. Moses Sr. suggested light rail be extended into Hamburg. There already is a railroad, Buffalo Southern, running from Buffalo to Gowanda. The 32-mile rail right of way from Buffalo to Gowanda is owned by Erie County, while Buffalo Southern operates on a lease with the Erie County Industrial Development Agency.

There have been light rail studies throughout the years, including a 2001 study of rail extension possibilities that ranked the Southtowns option low on the list of priorities for funding. But Moses believes a light rail line from the Southtowns to Buffalo could eliminate the need for the Skyway, and transform state Route 5 from the four- to six-lane commuter roadway it is today into an “attractive lakefront boulevard.”

But before any of those dramatic plans are realized, there may be some technological advances to help commuters.

Hal Morse, executive director of the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council, said many of the traffic problems have to do with traffic management and weather events.

"This issue with Route 5 in part is weather - it can be very localized," he said.

The council, the regional transportation planning agency, is building programs to simulate what happens in an accident, and how long it takes traffic to assimilate onto nearby roadways. Once there is a model, communities can be aware of what works and doesn't. And in the future, there will be the ability to contact drivers in their vehicles to inform them of any delays and to take other measures, such as coordinating traffic signals on adjoining streets, to handle the flow.

Faith Byrd of Derby says snow is part of living in Buffalo. (Barbara O'Brien/Buffalo News)

"The tech answer is going to be dramatic in terms of being able to manage traffic flow," Morse said.

Back in the Southtowns, motorists remain stoic.

"Anybody who lives here knows, if that's closed, what way to go. And if you get caught in that traffic, it's not that bad anyways. It's never that bad," Lach said.

And this from Faith Byrd, Kenneth's wife: "I mean it's Buffalo, what do you expect? We live in Buffalo, it happens. We get snow."

Perhaps she has the right attitude.

After all, residents of the Buffalo area spend less time per one-way commute each day than residents in any of the nation's 50 biggest metropolitan areas, according to trulia.com, the real estate website, which analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2014 American Community Survey.

You can search this map created by The Buffalo News, which uses data from the 2015 American Community Survey, to see the average one-way commute times for residents in every census tract in Erie and Niagara counties. Scroll over any census tract to see the average commute time of people who live there.

The average one-way commute in America is 25.4 minutes, according to a searchable map published in 2013 by WNYC.org that shows average commute times in every zip code in America. Here's what the WNYC.org map says about the average commutes of Buffalo area residents to their jobs. The list shows community name, the zip code in parenthesis, and length of commute in minutes.

Niagara Falls (14305), 16.2

Amherst (14226), 17.6

Buffalo (14222), 18.7

Buffalo (14216), 18.8

Tonawanda (14150), 18.8

West Seneca (14224), 19.7

Buffalo (14215), 20.1

Buffalo (14206), 20.1

Amherst (14221), 20.3

Cheektowaga (14227), 20.8

North Tonawanda (14120), 21.2

Buffalo (14207), 21.3

Lancaster (14086) 21.3

Hamburg (14075), 23.1

Orchard Park (14127), 23.7

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