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Interested in sprucing up the Scajaquada Expressway? How about the state giving trees more respect when widening roads? Should we be doing more for bicyclists and pedestrians in the region?

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Committee will be encouraging these kinds of questions and whatever else comes to mind when it begins a series of public hearings next month intended to chart the region's transportation priorities for the year 2020.

"It's a clean slate," said Charles N. Frederiksen, NFTC executive director. "Everything related to transportation is on the table. The goal is for the public to understand they're really the ones who pull the strings here."

It also is the first push to raise the profile of the NFTC, an obscure agency often confused with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. It is the only planning body for the Buffalo metropolitan area, and distributes $200 million in federal funding each year.

Determining where the money goes during the next 20 years will play a large role in shaping development in Erie and Niagara counties. For example, an emphasis on expanding suburban road capacity tends to encourage sprawl, promoting mass transit keeps the area more compact.

"If you have a major input on what transportation looks like, you have a major force in what the community looks like," Frederiksen said.

The NFTC is required to update its long-range plan periodically. The last review, which was done in 1993, based its 2020 projection on current patterns. This time, the agency was challenged by a federal transportation official to take a more imaginative approach.

"The suggestion was, here is your opportunity to take time, expand your public outreach and find out what the region wants to look like in 20 years," Frederiksen said.

To assist in obtaining broader participation, the seven members of NFTC board, who represent the area's major transportation agencies, including the NFTA, State Department of Transportation and State Thruway Authority, nominated people for a community advisory group.

That 52-member group will meet Wednesday to go through a test run of the format to be used at the public hearings. Twenty hearings will be scheduled throughout the two-county area between Sept. 19 and Dec. 15.

Frederiksen said the NFTC hopes each hearing draws at least 50 to 200 people. Many will probably focus on local issues, but the agency wants to weave them into a regional plan.

"For example, if you want noise barriers along the Thruway in Lackawanna, we need to develop a policy for implementing that," he said. "It's not a one-year process, but a 10-year process.

"This is the opportunity for the public to voice their concerns."

The first five hearings will be in Buffalo and begin at 6:30 p.m. They are Sept. 29, Medaille College Campus Center, 18 Agassiz Circle; Oct. 1, Jewish Community Center, 787 Delaware Ave.; Oct. 6, Southside Elementary School, 430 Southside Parkway; Oct. 8, Public School 18, 118 Hampshire St., and Oct. 15, Science Museum, 1020 Humboldt Parkway.

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