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Editorial: Don't waste millions on the Skyway

So, let’s get this straight: Buffalo and even Albany have been talking for years about replacing the aging and obsolete Skyway and yet the state Department of Transportation is talking about a repair project that will prolong its life for another two decades? Is somebody kidding?

It’s a poor use of taxpayer dollars. Albany is known for that, of course, but this really makes no sense. Yes, the Skyway needs to be maintained while alternatives are explored. Yes, the traveling public needs to know its infrastructure is safe. But why is the DOT planning to spend $27.5 million on this? Why not spend what is necessary to keep the bridge in safe, usable condition and use the remainder of the $27.5 million toward the new crossing that is going to have to be built sooner or later, anyway?

New Yorkers can only hope the DOT has considered issues such as that, but they don’t really know: No one from the state agency saw fit to respond to requests for comment for last week’s story in The Buffalo News. In case DOT Commissioner Matthew J. Driscoll doesn’t get it, the issue matters to the tens of thousands of people who use that bridge daily. He or his spokeswoman, Susan S. Surdej, needs to speak up.

Among the factors they need to explain is why the Skyway, known to be functionally obsolete as well as structurally deficient, should be preserved for another two decades. Even more disturbing, studies have found the bridge to be “fracture critical,” meaning that failure of one structural element could lead to a catastrophe.

Plainly, that needs to be attended to now, but in a way that protects the public while moving toward a better solution, whether it is an at-grade lift bridge, a tunnel or some other option that balances cost with the benefits.

In the meantime, the DOT is planning to begin this unwise project next summer, creating a headache for drivers. That may be unavoidable, but it’s important to minimize the disruption, which is, in part, a function of the breadth of the work. Indeed, it should be undertaken, in part, as a dry run for the possibility of the Skyway no longer being there.

To that end, the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Committee is helping to evaluate detours and other traffic alternatives. So far, the only option under study is the traditional one: lane closings as the bridge undergoes rehabilitation.

The backups could be horrendous. Even if the work is necessary and unavoidable, that factor, together with the structure’s deficiencies, makes clear the need for a new solution – one whose design can handle even significant maintenance without producing mind-boggling disruptions.

The only good news out of this is that a study of alternatives to the 60-year-old Skyway is scheduled. The state is spending $6 million to “evaluate potential long-term changes to the Skyway,” including the possibility of razing it. That study, announced a year ago, is scheduled for completion next year.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, is a longtime advocate of tearing down the bridge, which is a hindrance to developing the city’s newly reclaimed waterfront. It not only overpowers the increasingly popular environment around Canalside, but even after other improvements, still hinders access to the Outer Harbor.

Higgins has written to Driscoll, asking that the project be scaled back. Appropriately, he also notes that with the state spending billions of dollars to build new downstate bridges, including the enormously expensive Tappan Zee Bridge across the widest part of the Hudson River, Albany should be able to find the money to replace the Skyway. Federal funds could also be available.

Unless someone has persuasive data that shows the bridge is worth maintaining over the long term, the state should rescale this project. Keep the Skyway safe to use, but focus on a more efficient successor.

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