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STATE STUDY TO SEEK ROUTE TO A SAFER KENSINGTON

State transportation officials are launching a study that will explore strategies for improving safety at accident-prone spots along the Kensington Expressway.

Options might include finding new ways to enforce the 50-mph speed limit on a highway that is difficult to patrol, and possible redesign alternatives. For example, some law enforcement officials want to explore the feasibility of closing the Fillmore Avenue ramp on the westbound Kensington, just before the Scajaquada Expressway split.

Three Buffalo lawmakers who have raised concerns about recent accidents -- including Sunday's fatal crash under the Scajaquada Expressway overpass -- also want to begin talking to law enforcement agencies about significantly increasing patrols, including possible aerial surveillance. Speed enforcement is difficult on the six-lane highway, which has many curves and overpasses, and limited pull-offs for patrol cars.

There have been 11 fatal crashes on the busy Kensington Expressway over the last six years, the most of any roadway in the city. Officials noted that speed or drunkenness were contributing factors in many of the accidents, including a tragedy in May 1999 in which five people died when their car hit a guardrail and flew 16 feet before hitting concrete bridge supports at the exit for the Scajaquada Expressway. After that accident, a series of yellow lights were installed at that exit.

The victims were returning from a wedding reception, and the driver was legally drunk at the time, according to an accident investigator.

The victim in Sunday's accident near the Scajaquada Expressway overpass was traveling at more than 90 mph, according to police reports.

"There's not much we can do when people are traveling that fast," said James J. Barnack, regional traffic engineer for the state Department of Transportation. "But we're initiating a study that will look at safety implications on the Kensington. We definitely want to talk with police agencies about possible patrols, although enforcement is very difficult on this kind of highway."

Larry J. Baehre, public information officer for the Buffalo Police Department, said no one could argue that there are serious safety concerns along the expressway.

"It's a very hazardous highway, and it always has been," he said. "I've been patrolling it for 30 years and it's always been bad, especially where the Kensington meets the 198 (the Scajaquada)."

Baehre said the problem at the Kensington-Scajaquada junction is further complicated by the presence of the Fillmore ramp.

"We've been complaining about that ramp for years," he said. "We've encouraged the state to look at redesigning that stretch."

Baehre said the department's radar squad patrols the Kensington "from time to time," and a jeep with a large lighted display that tells motorists how fast they're going is periodically parked at strategic points.

But Lovejoy Council Member Richard Fontana thinks existing strategies have been ineffective in enforcing speed limits.

"People know that an empty jeep won't issue them a ticket," he said. "It's truly scary when you drive on that stretch and people are flying by you at 75 mph, or faster."

Council Member at Large Charley H. Fisher III lives on Humboldt Parkway, within earshot of the Kensington.

"In the summer, there seems to be an accident every other night -- at least a fender-bender," he said. "It's time to take a serious look at some new ways to deal with the problem."

Delaware Council Member Marc A. Coppola said he thinks reconstruction options must be seriously considered near the most hazardous points on the state highway. The issue could surface at Tuesday's Common Council session.

Meanwhile, Barnack said a new state-funded project that will use cameras to monitor local highway conditions might help to deter speeders. By the end of the year, more than 30 cameras will scan key stretches of the Thruway and other busy highways -- including the Kensington Expressway.

The $7.7 million initiative aims to keep tabs on traffic patterns and alert drivers to problems via electronic roadside message signs and is not intended to be an enforcement tool. Still, Barnack thinks the project might help to deter speeding.

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