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Festivities, traffic challenges on tap for Bills home opener

When the Buffalo Bills host their 50th home opener Sunday in Ralph Wilson Stadium, fans will be treated to a trip down Memory Lane at halftime -- but their travels to and from the game in Orchard Park might not be so pleasant.

As part of the 50th anniversary celebration by NFL teams that began play in the old American Football League in 1960, the Bills will trot out their all-time team at halftime, featuring virtually all living members of that 26-player squad.

"Obviously, for our fans, I think this is going to be a special day at One Bills Drive," said Scott Berchtold, vice president of communications. "In addition to the game itself [against Tampa Bay], to celebrate the 50th anniversary team will be exciting for our fans and the team."

That's the good news.

But two key road closings, on Big Tree Road in the Town of Hamburg and on the northbound Niagara Thruway in Buffalo, may provide traffic headaches for fans and police alike.

And the 4:05 p.m. start, which may spread out the pregame traffic flow, also could increase drunken behavior -- before, during and after the game. It should be an interesting day -- and evening -- around Ralph Wilson Stadium.

"There's always something very exciting about Opening Day and the kickoff of the [home] season with the Bills, especially when we're celebrating 50 years," said David H. Wheat, senior vice president for business.

The Bills have tweaked some game-day policies and practices on fan complaints about rowdy behavior and an increased crackdown on smoking.

>Detours advised

But first, the traffic issues:

Big Tree Road (Route 20A) remains closed to through traffic from South Park Avenue (Route 62) east to the intersection with McKinley Parkway and Southwestern Boulevard (Route 20) in the Town of Hamburg, the state Department of Transportation reported.

Fans are advised to follow posted detours on South Park and Southwestern, while using caution in the work zones.

A travel advisory, however, lists lane restrictions on Southwestern from South Park east to Orchard Park Road, as well as on southbound Abbott Road from Milestrip Road to Big Tree.

The Bills also cited the weekend closing of the northbound Niagara Thruway, from the Peace Bridge to Vulcan Street, for fans leaving the game.

"Fans should be aware if their routes to or from the game go through either of those areas," Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard said Friday. "And if they take that route, they should be patient."

Sunday's kickoff, three hours later than the normal daytime start, also might affect traffic flow to and from the game, along with fan behavior.

* Fans won't be allowed to enter stadium parking lots until 11 a.m., five hours before game time, as opposed to 8 a.m. for the 1 p.m. games.

That can cause a real headache, if too many fans line up hours early.

"If people are planning on parking in stadium lots, they shouldn't come before the lots open, because there's nowhere else for them to wait," Orchard Park Police Chief Andrew Benz said.

* U.S. customs officials expect an increase in incoming border traffic, on a late-summer Sunday, although they suspect the late start might spread out the traffic flow.

"We'll have all the lanes staffed, and we'll have them open before we see any traffic crunch," said Gregory J. Bennett, public affairs liaison for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Fans wanting to check border traffic can call (800) 715-6722 or visit several Web sites, including www.cbp.gov.

* Postgame tailgaters will find it getting dark before they leave the lots.

* Fans have three hours more to drink before the game.

>Policy changes

"We obviously recognize that a 4 o'clock game has the potential for more intoxicated fans and drivers," Howard said.

Once fans reach the game, they will notice a few changes in the Bills' game-day policies and procedures.

The key one may be the push to have fans complain about any unruly behavior by texting 78247. Fans should type "BILLS," then a space and give their location and the gist of the problem. The texting was started at midseason last year.

"It's been pretty successful," Wheat said. "We're probably somewhere in the range of 30 to 40 text messages per game. We expect to see more texts and [fewer] phone calls."

Fans also can call 312-8933 to report problems, but Bills officials think texting might be preferable.

"It's a pretty good way to report an incident around your seat without drawing attention to yourself," Wheat said.

The Bills also plan to be more vigilant about one complaint -- smokers who fail to use the designated smoking areas, outside the stadium walls near the outer fence.

The team also was stung last season by fans' complaints about waiting in line for a long time at security checkpoints, some missing the opening kickoff and much of the first quarter.

The Bills have made one slight structural change, replacing some grassy areas outside the stadium with pavement, to increase the walking areas toward the entrance gates.

But they continue to caution fans to get to the gates earlier.

"Our recommendation is that they try to get to the gates a minimum of 45 minutes before kickoff, to make sure they can get inside in a timely fashion," Wheat said. "We know the lines will build."

The Bills and law-enforcement officials agree on the main point concerning fan behavior.

As Howard said, "Don't ruin a good day with a bad decision."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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