At 5:45 p.m. on a Wednesday this September, I was accelerating up the northbound ramp onto the I-190 from Church Street. As I entered the merge area, I was confronted with brake lights. Immediately, I saw the problem.
A moment before, a southbound gasoline tank truck had swerved to avoid another vehicle. When the truck came to a stop, its cab's front axle was atop the cracked center barrier, and the jackknifed trailer was precariously tipped up on its right wheels. The driver was still in the cab, contemplating a change of underwear, while rush-hour traffic screeched up behind him.
As I passed by, I began to think of what could have happened. If the truck had tipped over, burst and ignited, burning gasoline would have flowed back down the grade toward Niagara Street in a sluice formed by the concrete barriers. The oncoming traffic would have been engulfed, the occupants immolated.
As it turned out, the tank was empty of liquid. But even if only gases had exploded, the impact would likely have extended beyond passing traffic, to the nearby lakefront condos and the Waterfront Elementary School. It is a horrific thought, but for anyone who has tried to enter the I-190 from either of the Church Street ramps or other ramps in this stretch, the possibility is anything but remote.
The entrance southbound from Niagara Street is a bad ramp. Most of the acceleration lane is elevated. Entering cars cannot see approaching traffic, nor can the traffic see them. If cars are trying to exit onto the Skyway, they do not want to give way even if they can. During rush hour, an entering vehicle has little choice but to accelerate to merge speed and hope there is a hole. This time there wasn't.
This incident reminds me of the accident a few years ago when a truck was suddenly confronted with a stalled car near the northbound combined Skyway-Church Street entrance-exit ramp. His swerve to the left caused the trailer to tip onto the center barrier, which sawed through cargo chains, releasing large steel coils that rolled off and killed several people. Surely the road's design and speed were contributing factors in both of these accidents.
In the stretch of I-190 passing through downtown Buffalo, entrances and exits come in fast succession. In the 1 1/2 -mile stretch from Niagara Street to Elm Street there are four entrances and three exits in both directions. At some points, they are difficult to anticipate because of the S-curve in the through-traffic lanes. There are several combined entrances and exits, which require ramp merges as well as merges into the traffic flow.
Several of the entrance ramps, such as northbound from Oak Street and from the Skyway, have sharp curves just before the merge area.
The northbound exit to Church Street, which also serves as the entrance ramp from the Skyway, is short and descends quickly into a sharp curve. This often requires exiting vehicles to slow down on the through lanes, with overtaking through traffic having little warning because of the S-curve.
Several of the other ramps have similar substandard length and visibility characteristics.
It seems to me that by their nature, interstate connectors have the highest likelihood of mixing local and visitor traffic. If the design causes visitors to be confused and overly cautious, large differences in relative speed will almost certainly result.
Combine this with the high density associated with rush hour and event traffic, and the disparities become even worse. When there are large differences in relative speed, bad accidents happen, especially if heavy trucks are in the flow.
The current speed limit for I-190 is 55 mph. Since the speed limit was increased to 65 mph on rural stretches of I-90, it is my experience that the traffic-flow speed on I-190 has increased and also moves at 65 mph. Speeds through the downtown stretch are often 55 to 60 mph. Clearly, such speeds invite disaster given the conditions described above.
I am aware that to vary speed limits creates a hazard by interrupting the highway flow rate. But in this case, there appears to be a greater threat posed by a design that is necessarily below standard for the volume it is serving. On many other cities' roads, such as Rochester's I-490, the speed limit is set lower where the terrain or other exiting structures have forced less-than-optimal design. In a section of I-490 similar to our downtown, the limit is 40 mph.
For downtown Buffalo, common sense demands a similar solution. I believe a well-marked and enforced limit of 45 mph through the downtown area would bring the average traffic flow rate down closer to 50 mph. The change should substantially lower the risk and number of accidents that occur in this stretch at a cost of less than 20 seconds of driving time.
We just had a very close call. This community should demand change.
ANDREW R. GRAHAM has been a downtown Buffalo resident for 10 years. Earlier he commuted successfully through Rochester's infamous "Can of Worms" intersection for 17 years.