New York's $104 million plan to turn the Scajaquada Expressway into a lower-speed boulevard will not include restricting the stone arch bridge over Delaware Avenue to pedestrians and bicyclists, state officials said Tuesday.
The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy last month called for connecting the bridge to Delaware Park's Ring Road, giving pedestrians and bicyclists easier access from the park meadow to Hoyt Lake. The conservancy called for a slightly re-routed Scajaquada Boulevard to have an at-grade intersection at Delaware Avenue, using the current on- and off-ramps.
But state Department of Transportation Commissioner Matthew Driscoll said the proposal would create a "bottleneck" of traffic at that new intersection, which would have to be expanded significantly to accommodate all the traffic.
"It would in fact be the largest intersection in the entire project area," Driscoll told The Buffalo News Editorial Board.
Tuesday night, the DOT provided the public with an update of its plan to downgrade 2.2 miles of Route 198, between Parkside Avenue and Grant Street, at a public information session at SUNY Buffalo State. In addition to rejecting the conservancy proposal, new changes announced Tuesday include the addition of a signed bike route and reduced center medians to calm traffic on the Scajaquada Expressway.
Driscoll emphasized that the DOT is moving ahead with its current plan to remake the 1960s-era Scajaquada, unless overwhelming public opposition stops it, in which case the millions of dollars in federal funding for the project will go elsewhere.
"If the public says 'no,' then we won't do it," he said. "But what we're saying is we want to do it. We want to take this expressway and make it the boulevard that the park deserves. We can't make up for the sins that were had 70 years ago."
The DOT in January presented a plan that included an increase from three conventional traffic signals to seven; pedestrian crossings with contrasting colored surface and high visibility markings to enhance safety; and medians of 10 feet wide or greater at pedestrian crossings.
That plan was criticized by some for not doing more to reverse the effects to the park and surrounding area more than 60 years ago when the highway was built through the park. The conservancy last month called for the DOT to rethink its plan, especially at Delaware Avenue.
But DOT officials said their preferred alignment of a timed signalized intersection on the Scajaquada near Delaware Avenue would handle traffic more efficiently and prevent backups.
Sam Hoyt, regional president for Empire State Development, said the conservancy's proposal would result in major congestion.
"You would have a Niagara Falls Boulevard-like intersection at Delaware Avenue at the top of the S-curves," he said. "In my opinion, as someone who's on those S-curves all the time and lives in that immediate area, it would be a disaster."
Feds won't OK conservancy plan
The conservancy's plan also would negatively impact parkland and cultural resources in violation of federal law, officials said.
DOT officials said their plan returns one acre of parkland, while the conservancy's proposal uses three more acres of parkland. The DOT's plan also doesn't disturb an archaeological site containing prehistoric Native American artifacts near the current on- and off-ramps near Hoyt Lake, officials said.
For all those reasons, Driscoll said, the Federal Highway Administration will not support the conservancy's proposal, which is required for the project to proceed.
"We cannot and we're not going to do those," he said.
The DOT has incorporated two major changes to the design of the project:
New bike route
First, bikes will be welcomed on the new Scajaquada.
A signed bike route will be provided along 5-foot-wide shoulders on either side of the roadway. That change came from strong advocacy within the bicycling community, officials said. Bicyclists who prefer to ride off-road also will be able to use shared pathways adjacent to the roadway.
The current plan still envisions two 11-foot-wide travel lanes in each direction separated by a median.
The raised center median has been reduced from 12-feet-wide to four feet for much of the corridor. Plantings in the median have been minimized at the request of corridor community groups, officials said. The median retains historic ornamental lighting consistent with an Olmsted design.
Driscoll said the 4-foot medians were a compromise with the groups who had recently advocated for just a double yellow line as a way to calm traffic further. But DOT officials said some sort of physical median was recommended to prevent head-on crashes.
Driscoll said accidents have decreased 25 percent this year since short-term traffic-calming measures were introduced to the expressway, including a 30 mph speed limit, narrower lanes and guide rails.
The next steps call for a record of decision to be signed in December, with right-of-way acquisition taking place over the winter and construction beginning in summer 2018.
"We feel that we've done everything we can to get to a place that brings a safe Scajaquada project to fruition," Driscoll said. "We believe that this is it."