Thruway travelers soon will have something more than exit signs to let them know they are passing the City of Buffalo -- a dozen full-size bison figures will go on permanent display at Exit 53, where the Mainline meets the Niagara Thruway.
"It's a nice way to get some positive attention for Buffalo from Thruway motorists, and I think daily commuters will also get an upbeat feeling from it," said Paul Parker, construction manager of what has been billed as the authority's largest Western New York project.
The bison also are considered the perfect ornamentation for the Thruway's nearly complete "fourth lane" project. The $62.5 million effort, which began in spring 2001 and is scheduled to wrap up by Dec. 20, will create the only upstate eight-lane section of the Thruway.
"Since this is the biggest we've ever done in Western New York and it's so classy having four lanes in each direction, it seemed appropriate to add the bison. I think it's something people will remember and look forward to seeing as they drive by," Parker said.
The project manager said he borrowed the bison concept from the successful "Herd About Buffalo" campaign, in which local artists used fiberglass bison to display their creativity. But while the idea received immediate support from his staff in Buffalo, using bison as a roadside attraction was not an instant hit with Thruway Authority executives in Albany.
"There were concerns about safety. There were fears they might be a distraction to motorists," he recalled. "And there was also the issue of cost. After we convinced them they wouldn't pose a danger, they made it clear that not one penny of authority money would be spent on decorative bison."
Undeterred, Parker approached the contractors, subcontractors and other interested parties connected with the giant road project and received an enthusiastic response.
More than a dozen businesses and construction-related organizations chipped in to purchase the mini-herd and to cover the costs of mounting the animals on concrete slabs.
The classic brown and black bison will be scattered around the green spaces of the interchange to provide glimpses for both east- and westbound drivers. The first five will be "put out to pasture" early next week in a spot visible to travelers heading east on the Thruway. Three others will be placed in view of those heading west.
Two other groups will be scattered in areas adjacent to the Niagara Thruway ramps to the Mainline Thruway.
Plans call for planting ornamental prairie grasses around the bison to give the appearance that they are grazing in a natural meadow.
For the next few weeks, drivers also will see the last work crews wrapping up the massive road project. Last month, three lanes in each direction were reopened between the Niagara Thruway and the Aurora Expressway, helping to alleviate the nearly two-mile construction squeeze that drivers have faced for most of the last two years.
Crews are now working to restore the concrete median barriers and complete drainage and shoulder work, the final steps to opening all eight lanes.