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It will have taken 20 years, but Amherst should have its first as-the-crow-flies north-south highway by 1999, officials say.

The town recently hired Earth Dimensions for $15,000 to prepare a wetlands replacement plan for the northerly extension of Youngs Road from Casey Road to North French Road, the missing link in a cross-town route on which work began in the late 1970s.

When the $3.5 million job is finished, Youngs will be Amherst's only interior north-south highway without curves, doglegs or driveways every one hundred feet or so -- a direct, limited-access link between the developed southeast and the developing northeast sections of the sprawling suburb.

The three-quarter-mile-long Casey-to-North French extension is scheduled to be bid next fall and completed in 1999, Town Engineer Paul M. Bowers said. Also on the drawing board is a an 8-foot-wide paved bike path on the west side of Youngs, between North French and the old "Peanut Line" railroad right of way.

The new section of road will connect with North French where New Road comes in from the north, providing motorists a "straight shot" between Wehrle Drive in the south and Tonawanda Creek Road in the north.

Dodge Road, which now intersects North French and New from the southwest, will be ended in a cul de sac, with a short connector street to Youngs just south of the intersection, according to plans.

Youngs takes north-south commuter pressure off Hopkins Road in the eastern half of Amherst and, to a lesser extent, North Forest Road, a winding route in the town's mid-section. Hopkins and North Forest, both of which have many private and commercial driveways, weren't designed as primary traffic movers.

North Forest meanders along Ellicott Creek before swinging northwest to Dodge, an east-west road.

Hopkins, which begins as Garrison Road and then becomes Evans Street in southern Amherst, traverses the town, north and south. But it becomes a curvy rural road north of North French.

A study in 1995 showed more than 240 driveways on Evans-Hopkins, between Main Street and North French, compared with 45 on a comparable stretch of Youngs, purposely built as a limited-access road to move traffic more quickly.

Youngs used to function primarily as a road serving the Erie Community College North Campus, running between Cheektowaga and the Thruway, across Main to Sheridan Drive, east of the Village of Williamsville.

But as far back as the 1920s, town maps reveal Youngs was seen as a north-south route for the future. Youngs was extended from Sheridan Drive to Klein Road for $920,000 in 1979 and from Klein to Casey for $2.75 million in 1986.

In 1988, officials announced plans to begin work on the final Casey-to-North French section the following year. But political changeovers at Town Hall and new state and federal wetlands regulations have combined to keep the project on the back burner for the last 10 years.

The road work planned for 1999 affects several acres on the western edge of a large wetlands area between Casey and North French, officials noted. Earth Dimensions was hired to negotiate a wetlands mitigation plan with the state Department of Environmental Conservation by February.

The project requires acquiring all or parts of 17 parcels of land, including two or three homes, Bowers reported. The properties have appraised values totaling about $710,000, which is included in the $3.5 million project budget, he said.

Currently, more than 6,000 residents of the Ransom Oaks area in northeast Amherst must use Dodge and then Casey to get to Youngs. Consequently, much of the north-south traffic the extension is designed to pick up now uses Hopkins or Transit Road, a major state highway dividing Amherst and Clarence.

If congestion on Hopkins is not relieved, pressures will grow for it to be widened, even though it is primarily residential, authorities say. Plans to widen a section of North Forest, also considered mostly residential, are under way amid furious opposition by neighbors.

Unlike Hopkins, curb cuts for private driveways and subdivision streets along Youngs are restricted by local law, decreasing what authorities call "conflict points" with motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians.

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