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IN THE ROAD WARS, SPEED ISN'T THE ONLY ISSUE

For a while, state transportation planners were looking at the possibility of widening North Buffalo's Hertel Avenue by nine feet and taking out four of the eight traffic signals in the stretch between Delaware and Starin avenues. The scheme ignored the character of Hertel as a neighborhood shopping and gathering place in favor of accommodating faster traffic. It's fortunate that now the state Department of Transportation has stepped aside and taken the possibility of a much wider Hertel with it. The city has assumed the project, and its engineer is talking about possibly adding a foot to each side, but nothing more.

But there are several other places in the Buffalo area where road-widening projects are on the books despite neighborhood opposition. In general, the conflicts pit the focused desire of highway engineers to widen and straighten roads so that traffic can move faster against a set of neighborhood concerns. There may be opposition because front-lawn trees would come down. It may be the anticipated destruction of a neighborhood's residential flavor. There may be environmental and scenic considerations. There may be concern that a relaxed country road will become a souped-up highway. There may be historic considerations.

Sadly, through the years, width and speed have usually carried the day. They can be measured with engineering precision in ways community values cannot be. Armed with rigidly applied guidelines put forth by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the highway designers have prevailed with cookie-cutter answers good for moving traffic at high speed with optimum safety, but sometimes hurtful to distinctive community features.

But according to the October edition of the magazine "Governing," an "asphalt rebellion" is afoot in many sections of the country. There are more vocal opponents to specific projects and more instances where the opponents are coming out on top.

The magazine says Vermont has enacted the strongest highway-design reform law. Officials have legal permission to depart from the AASHTO standards when designing or repairing roads and bridges. It is now permissible to design roads for safety at the posted limit, not some speed well above the limit as occurs under the AASHTO guidelines. Furthermore, there is express permission to design projects that would lower speed limits, not just increase them, a reform that speaks loudly in favor of preserving neighborhood characteristics.

Such issues come to bear at Amherst's North Forest Road, which the state has targeted for widening between Main Street and Sheridan Drive. If the only concern is moving traffic quickly with maximum safety, the project makes sense. But it's not.

Every project has to be evaluated separately. But there must be room to consider not just traffic movement, but other values and impacts.

Vermont has a good idea.

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