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On the brink of amazing

Good intentions may finally turn into a well-paved, parklike road to Buffalo’s outer harbor, as a long-simmering plan to upgrade and beautify Ohio Street heads toward reality.

Ground could be broken as soon as this fall for the reconstructed tree-lined, two-lane boulevard.

Instead of navigating a gravelly shoulder or crumbling sidewalk, pedestrians will have crosswalks, and cyclists will roll along 12-foot-wide bike paths.

For a mile and a half, from Michigan Avenue to Ohio Street’s terminus at Route 5 near Tifft Farm Nature Preserve, there will be new LED street lighting and 21st century water lines, gas lines and sewer lines.

And one more feature for the weary travelers.

“The pavement is going to be fantastic,” according to the project’s senior manager.

That will all be quite a change for Southtowns commuters, wandering concertgoers and confused cyclists trying to find their way to the waterfront south of the Buffalo River – a route that seemingly has been one of the great secrets of the city.

“A lot of people don’t know Ohio Street exists,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who has been pushing the project.

When finished in 2015, the upgraded road will link the already vibrant Canalside development at the foot of Main Street and the parks, beach and marinas on the city’s lakefront. The $12.8 million project was approved this week by the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., which will oversee the work with the state Department of Transportation, assistance from the city and $8.8 million in federal funding.

“It’s one of those game-changers,” said Higgins, who worked with Mayor Byron W. Brown to help revive the project last fall when its federal funding was threatened. “It will create a ‘land bridge’ to the outer harbor.”

Rick Smith, a community activist whose family has owned Rigidized Metals on Ohio Street for 70 years, said Thursday he is happy the project is now funded.

“It took awhile for the powers that be to understand how vital a connection [Ohio Street] is to the outer harbor,” he said. “Ohio Street is really the Buffalo River.”

And the river, along with the rest of Buffalo’s waterfront, is the city’s future, said Smith, who helped found Buffalo’s Boom Days and River Fest celebrations.

“We need to make more use of this city’s cool attributes,” Smith said, “and this will give us some momentum – we need to get people back on the water. If we can get some of these things right, it gets some of the excitement back.”

There has been some attention given to Ohio Street in recent years, or at least small parts of it.

River Fest Park was developed near the Michigan Avenue end of the street in 2011; there also is now a launch for kayaks and canoes near the park.

Many of the improvements won’t be visible to the public but are key to making the area more environmentally sound and suitable for development, said senior project manager Steven Ranalli at Empire State Development, parent agency of the harbor development corporation.

He ticked off the list of upgrades to utilities, adding that plans include having connections ready to go to make the area’s many vacant lots more “shovel ready.”

In addition to pointing out that the road surface will be “fantastic,” he said, “There will be an overall significant reduction in pavement,” and the surface on the parking lane and bike paths will be permeable, reducing rain runoff into the river.

He also said the agency is working with utility companies to go underground with all power, telephone and cable lines in the “neighborhood” area between Michigan Avenue and the lift bridge.

Along with much better signs to direct travelers between the city and harborfront venues, he said, there will also be a number of historical markers, created with input from local historical and preservation groups.

Work is expected to begin by November, Ranalli said, and be under heavy construction through 2014, with trees and landscaping installed in time for a ribbon- cutting on Memorial Day 2015.

No large-scale road closures are planned, he added, though there may be a detour from Louisiana Street to South Park early on to expedite work near River Fest Park in time for summer 2014.

Pete Gallivan, a spokesman for Erie Canal Harbor Development, also said the Ohio Street lift bridge itself will not be changed, but plans are to “beautify” it with lighting that is now being designed.

Higgins, a frequent and vocal critic of the Skyway, said this project is not taking the place of his efforts to have the long and winding bridge taken down. But he noted that by directing more people to Ohio Street, it will help the public see there are other options to crossing the Buffalo River.

“We really want to make Buffalo a great waterfront city,” Higgins said, noting the millions of dollars of private investment now being made near Canalside – the Webster block development, renovation of the former Donovan State Office Building and construction on the site of the old Memorial Auditorium.

This is the start of something big, he maintained.

“The next 24 months of projects will transform Buffalo for the next 100 years,” he predicted.