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Hopes rise for returning cars to part of Main St. But NFTA says issues remain for 600 block

Automobiles once again could cruise past Shea's Performing Arts Center as early as next year, despite several sticking points in reintroducing vehicle traffic to that section of Main Street.

Work is expected to start in September to pave the way for the return of automobiles to the 600 block, banned since Metro Rail construction began in the early 1980s. But the long-awaited goal carries a hefty price tag -- loss of Metro Rail's Theater Station.

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority also remains concerned that traffic in front of Shea's -- as sought by the theater -- potentially could delay Metro Rail trains throughout the entire system.

In addition, a citizens transit group adamantly opposes mixing automobiles and light rail vehicles in the Theater District, on the 600 block of Main, between Chippewa and Tupper streets, citing concerns about safety and operations.

Still, officials of the city, NFTA, Shea's and Buffalo Place manager of the pedestrian mall -- all maintain the problems will be resolved.

"We continue to go over the ideas we have along with those that the city and Buffalo Place have," said Kimberley A. Minkel, NFTA executive director. "Once we have that resolved, I think the project can move forward."

Buffalo Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak said he is optimistic the state will approve final design plans soon -- possibly within a couple of weeks. Construction then could begin in September, with the project completed by late fall of 2012.

Business owners along the 600 block of Main will face some temporary inconveniences, Stepniak said. Sidewalks will be torn up, and "accessibility issues" will result at certain points during the yearlong construction project.

"At the end of the fall of 2012, I think they're going to be happy with the end result," Stepniak said.

But Citizens for Regional Transit, a public transportation advocacy group with a long history of promoting Metro Rail, argues that mixing cars and light rail vehicles is inherently unsafe. They say motor vehicles should travel alongside the light rail tracks.

"You will have an accident on the track bed, and that will disrupt the whole system," said Gladys Gifford, the group's president, "and it must be reliable throughout."

The group also opposes removing the Theater Station, pointing to a growing residential presence in the area. Residents of downtown and patrons of Theater District businesses would be forced to use the Fountain Plaza Station.

"They've eliminated the Theater Station because [Shea's] wanted room for limousines," Gifford said. "That seems a little over the top."

Anthony Conte, Shea's president, said the idea involves opening the front door of Shea's to drop-off car traffic and bring a sense of uniqueness to the Theater District.

"When you have people come to visit your house, do you invite them to your back door or your front door?" he asked. "Unfortunately, when they come to our house, our theater, at least half of them or more end up going to the back door, because that's where all the parking is.

"But if we have the ability to drop people off directly in front of the theater," he added, "then I think we'll see more people use the main entrance of the theater and appreciate the beauty of the theater."

Conte said theater operators have asked the city to add special features on the 600 block of Main Street to help identify it as the Theater District.

Those, he said, will include electronic controls on lamp posts to allow the street and buildings to be lit.

"That's going to create something very, very unique and different on our block that won't exist anywhere else in the city," Conte said.

He also sees no problems with light rail vehicles and automobiles sharing the same space.

"This is not new. It's not a crazy idea," said Conte, who pointed to Toronto and San Francisco. "It's done everywhere. It's different than what we do right now, yes, and there have to be preparations made to ensure safety, and those are all built into the plans."

Transit officials in Toronto acknowledge that mixing automobiles and rail vehicles can lead to problems, though only three of the 11 streetcar or light rail routes in Toronto that share roads with cars have a dedicated right of way.

Brian Ross, spokesman for the Toronto Transit Commission, said his agency even retrofitted the St. Clair Avenue line into an exclusive transit route several years ago.

While that is impossible on busy Toronto streets like King or Queen, he said separating the two modes of traffic has always proved preferable.

"A dedicated right of way allows for greater reliability of the line," he said, "and transit users prefer reliability to speed.

"They are better because you avoid accidents and the vagaries of traffic," he added.

But Stepniak insisted that the design has been subjected to extensive review and public comment and that no final revisions are planned.

Minkel said that while90 percent of the project's design phase is complete, officials of Metro Rail and Shea's still must work out issues involving the possibility that Shea's traffic could block trains.

Because traffic will be routed around the portal where trains enter and exit underground, the Theater Station will have to be sacrificed because of space.

"It's a trade-off," said Debra L. Chernoff, planning manager for Buffalo Place.

Stepniak added he doesn't think the proposed drop-off area will cause problems and that meetings are planned soon to discuss the situation.

"I'm sure if there is a [problem], we can figure that out. I'm not really concerned about that at this point," Stepniak said.

City officials note that the latest phase is part of a long-term, federally funded plan to return traffic to the entirety of Main Street, from Goodell Street to the Buffalo River.

Stepniak wasn't prepared to call the construction of the now widely criticized Main Street Pedestrian Mall a mistake. The commissioner noted that when the region pursued the project, the design was a national trend.

"It's about adapting. We have to learn to adapt to be successful. And that's actually what we're doing here," Stepniak said.

e-mail: mccarthy@buffnews.com

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