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More changes in store for ever-busier Transit Road Three-year project to tackle two-mile stretch of clogged thoroughfare in growing suburbs

After five years or so of relative peace, the tearing-up and subsequent rebuilding of Transit Road -- one of Erie County's most congested and detested commuter corridors -- resumed last week.

You practically could feel the shudder.

"It's coming," said Clarence Supervisor Kathleen Hallock, a veteran of the nearly two decades already devoted to rebuilding Transit Road.

"It's a huge project, and there will be major impacts," added Hallock, who calls herself a "survivor" of the innumerable traffic jams caused by lane closures while the work was done.

This time around, the reconstruction will involve the two miles from Aero Drive, south of the Thruway, to Main Street, a stretch jammed with 44,100 vehicles a day, or 20 percent over capacity.

No major lane closures are anticipated this season, said Susan Surdej, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, because construction will focus on such tasks as improving drainage, work off to the side of the road. The department also is reconfiguring some side streets to steer traffic away from the intersection of Transit and Wehrle Drive.

Call it the calm before the storm, however.

By the time it is finished in late 2009, the $28.4 million project will transform the Transit-Wehrle commuter corridor. Between the Thruway and Main Street, Transit will have three lanes, instead of two, in each direction and include a raised median and turn lanes with signals at intersections.

Just west of Transit, Wehrle, now a two-lane street rushing toward capacity, will be widened to seven lanes -- the size of the Thruway -- and will get two left-turn lanes at the intersection to move traffic more quickly.

Next year, Erie County also will launch its own $13 million makeover of Wehrle, expanding it to three lanes from Ellicott Creek to about Ingram Micro and then to five lanes to the state's seven-lane behemoth.

The state plans to add access roads so drivers more easily can reach businesses in construction zones.

Work will be done from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Old-timers can remember the days when roads like Transit and Main Street, as it slices through Amherst, didn't seem to be under nonstop reconstruction, and driving them didn't entail gridlock, flaring tempers and blaring horns.

All that changed when the population began shifting away from Buffalo and inner-ring neighborhoods to places like Amherst, Clarence and Lancaster, the only Erie County communities to grow significantly in recent years. Collectively, the population of those towns jumped 11 percent from 1990 to 2000 and continues to rise.

The traffic that followed is expected to keep getting worse, even if growth slows.

"People just drive more," said Stephen Szopinski of the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council. "Even with fewer people, you have people driving more."

With all the traffic, keeping roadways up to standards becomes a constant battle, he said.

Between Sheridan Drive and Maple Road, Transit was widened about 15 years ago but already exceeds capacity, he said.

Within two decades, the supersized Transit-Wehrle corridor also will surpass capacity, by about 7 percent, according to the organization's projections.

What will happen then is anyone's guess, Szopinski said.

"How much wider can you get?" he asked of the two roads.

The next step could be finding alternative, possibly parallel, routes and doing whatever construction is needed for them to handle the influx of new traffic, he said.

Pushing for mass transit or carpooling are other options, he said.

That would mean breaking the suburban love affair with cars, though -- a monumental task.

Doug Hartmayer of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority said more riders are using the agency's limited bus service in the Transit-Main area.

But as congestion grows, along with gas prices and other costs associated with driving, many more drivers might see mass transit as a "viable option," he said.

Drivers, meanwhile, will have little choice but to brace themselves for the Transit Road project.

"We'll get through this," Hallock said. "We have before."

e-mail: ncervantes@buffnews.com

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