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DOT, TOWNS ON COLLISION COURSE

There's a revolt going on out there, and it's not about politics, religion or even taxes.

It's about roads.

It's about property owners lobbying against plans to widen or straighten their road.

It's about the state trying to reduce accidents, move more vehicles and implement newer traffic standards on roads built years ago.

It's about homeowners and merchants protecting a tree-lined street or store parking or the neighborhood's character.

Neighborhoods are fighting the state Department of Transportation.

"They're going to destroy the neighborhood to save the road. That's basically what it is," said Robert Hochberg, a resident of North Forest Road in Amherst.

"It's unfortunate," Hochberg said. "You like a road, you move there, and someone else comes in and says that's not the way it's going to be."

Hochberg's neighborhood, a winding, one-mile stretch of North Forest, between Sheridan Drive and Maple Road, is the state and county's latest target for road-widening and the site of the latest conflict.

Harlem Road in Amherst, Niagara Falls Boulevard on the Amherst-Town of Tonawanda border, Hertel Avenue in Buffalo and Broadway in the villages of Lancaster and Depew, are all areas where road-widening has met with similar neighborhood protests in recent years.

Residents complain the human element is forgotten amid the DOT's zest to widen in the name of traffic safety. But transportation officials say they are very receptive to neighborhood concerns.

"People sometimes get so upset because they feel (a project design) has already been decided," said Kevin Farry, an assistant regional design engineer who has worked on some of these controversial projects.

"That is really not the case," Farry said. "I can't think of one job where we haven't been accommodating as a result of public input."

There's a bigger picture in all of this.

Buffalo residents clashed with planners years ago over similar and much larger projects, so these confrontations are nothing new, said Richard M. Tobe, Erie County's commissioner of environment and planning.

And in the most recent battle between state engineers and city residents, the neighborhood seemed to win with a widening project that will be just one foot.

But the outcry over wider roads has become much more of a suburban issue in recent years, Tobe said.

In fact, he added, the conflicts are symptoms of a larger regional transportation problem.

The growth and development in the suburbs have changed traffic patterns, planners said. The traffic shifting away from the city and into the suburbs is putting a strain on suburban roads.

"When those roads were put in, they were meant to support the traffic at the time," said Donald J. Smith, interim staff director for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Committee.

"But when you put a supermarket at one end (of a street) and an apartment complex on the other end, obviously you're going to have more traffic on the road," Smith said.

Local municipalities are partly to blame, regional planners said. Unchecked development has occurred without much consideration for transportation needs.

That's why discussions of regionalism and suburban sprawl are so important to the future of the area's transportation system, planners added. Furthermore, planners said, regional studies are in the works in an effort to become more proactive, instead of reactive, when addressing transportation needs.

Meanwhile, the DOT and other regional planning agencies continue to improve existing roads to carry higher traffic volumes. In fact, there's no coincidence to the recent controversies.

The DOT in recent years has been taking on the more delicate projects where older, settled neighborhoods are disrupted.

"It's become very clear to us we have to tackle the difficult projects," said Eugene J. Nowicki, regional planning and program manager for the DOT. "We have to look at addressing those problem areas."

And future road-widening projects don't have to be a battle, residents said.

But neighborhoods are caught off guard and become suspicious when introduced to widening proposals late in the game, residents said. Residents and elected officials, instead, should be involved when plans are first considered, said Chris Tirella, a Harlem Road resident who lobbied against road widening on Harlem a few years ago.

"I really think that would stop a lot of the controversy," Mrs. Tirella said.

"When you get off on the wrong foot with the residents, it's very hard to gain their trust through the process," said Erie County Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick, D-Kenmore, who helped lobby against a wider Niagara Falls Boulevard.

"People have a huge investment in their property and homes," Swanick said. "They're willing to get vocal because they're fighting for their rights. People will dig their heels in."

People like Jeff and Denise Horbowicz of Niagara Falls Boulevard.

The couple is among those who fought for two years to stop the road widening, but they'll lose some frontage when work begins.

"You never think about that road in front of you until its happening," Mrs. Horbowicz said about the widening, "and then it's too late."

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