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Don't lose sight of Main Street
Budget can sidetrack traffic return but city should keep that as goal

Sometimes, you just have to bide your time. Talk of reopening Main Street to traffic has gone on so long, it's hardly surprising that it's going to go on a while longer before something gets done. Under the circumstances, that's OK -- as long as it does get done, and sooner rather than later.

The state budget deficit is the latest reason for delay. With Albany confronting a massive revenue gap of at least $9.1 billion, state leaders are going to have to make harder decisions than when to put cars back on Buffalo's main drag.

Decisions made over the next several weeks (or months, depending on the prevailing level of governmental dysfunction) are liable to result in teachers being laid off, health care pressured and local tax rates pushed upward. The Great Recession will reverberate through New York in a way that it hasn't thus far.

Against that grim backdrop, it seems greedy to insist that Albany spend $8 million to restore through traffic to the 600 block of Main Street, which includes the Theater District. Preparatory work on the block was scheduled to get under way this fall, but now may be delayed until spring of 2011.

It's an odd situation, since the money isn't really even Albany's. The federal government is paying most of the tab on the block-by-block plan to reopen the street to cars (work on the 700 block has already been completed). But Albany is the conduit for the money, and it is having a cash-flow crisis. The state is conserving cash to manage the crisis.

It is important that the work be completed at some point in the not-too-distant future. Closing Main Street to motor vehicles was a catastrophic mistake. It discouraged shoppers from heading to Main Street, even as the region was undergoing a broader economic decline. It was disastrous for downtown businesses.

Now there is reason to believe downtown soon will see signs of new life. The Canal Side project should reinvigorate the lower Main Street area, while the developing Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus brings new workers to the north. It is critical for Main Street to be reopened to traffic if the city is to gain maximum benefit from these developments.

It is still possible that the work on the 600 block will proceed on schedule, though it seems unlikely, given that design work hasn't even started. Buffalo has managed this long without cars on Main Street, it can wait a few more months for the project to resume. But the city's business community and its legislative delegation need to ensure that the project remains high on the state's agenda. That's the task going forward.

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