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After three decades, traffic - and excitement - returns to a section of Main Street

Drivers navigated tentatively Friday along a section of Main Street that’s been home to only Metro Rail trains for three decades.

The 600 block of Main, in the heart of downtown’s Theater District, was finally reopened to vehicular traffic. Motorists took their time getting used to the new layout, which includes the flashing red lights of a railroad crossing to halt traffic as a train approaches.

Merchants along that stretch also said the reworked traffic flow means something positive for their businesses.

Bringing vehicular traffic back to Main Street was a long time coming for many, but probably few have waited longer than Bijou Grille owner Bea Militello. Having owned the restaurant across from Shea’s Performing Arts Center for 25 years, and dealing with almost two years of construction, Militello said opening the street to traffic will make her business more visible and make it easier to actually get to her front door.

“This is just so exciting. I didn’t ever think I’d see it in my lifetime,” she said Friday afternoon, a few hours after cars, trucks and Metro Rail trains began to coexist along a section of Main lined with trees dressed with strings of white lights.

Opening up the roadway to cars means drivers will have to get used to sharing the roadway with the Metro Rail.

Where the Metro Rail emerges from underground heading south on Main, about 25 yards from Shea’s glimmering marquee, sits a railroad-crossing gate that drops in front of vehicular traffic. About 20 or 25 seconds before the train appears streetside, the white and red arm and flashing red lights of the barricade lowers to halt traffic. The arm rises about seven or eight seconds after the train finishes passes through, and southbound traffic can proceed again.

Where the trains go back underground heading north, a sign hangs reading “all traffic” and shows an arrow pointing to the right. The sign has eight blinking white lights around its edges. In addition, there are yellow lines on the pavement over the tracks and as the traffic lane directs vehicles to the right.

On Friday afternoon, most of the cars drove slowly in that area of Main, with some drivers glancing out their side windows to catch a glimpse of the facades they haven’t been able to drive by in decades.

Above the center median that in spots was still coated in snow, Christmas wreaths still adorned the poles that hold up the Metro Rail wires.

Rush hour wasn’t much of a rush on the 600 block. As people trickled into the area for the evening’s shows at Shea’s, the Town Ballroom and other nearby venues, they saw the new traffic lights in front of Shea’s and the Bijou Grille. The project included the addition of a bike lane and new street lights.

The downtown stretch of Main Street had been closed to vehicular traffic since the mid-1980s. It cost about $8 million to bring traffic back to the section of Main between Tupper and Chippewa streets, which is less than a quarter mile in length.

It’s the latest step of a plan to reopen the long-shuttered stretch of roadway that now connects two bustling sections of the city – the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and Canalside.

After first bringing back two-way vehicular traffic to the 700 block of Main several years ago, work is also progressing just south on the 500 block, between Chippewa and Mohawk streets, as part of the “Cars Sharing Main Street” plan. Eventually, officials hope vehicular traffic will return to the rest of Main Street, all the way to the waterfront.

There is some two-hour, on-street parking, on the 600 block, as well as a few loading zones with 15-minute limits.

The available parking is sure to add at least a little convenience for the retailers along the strip, including those in the Market Arcade, where Michael Mulley opened Queen City Gallery in 2007, selling his photography.

Late Friday afternoon, he said he hadn’t sold anything all day.

Mulley said the traffic coming back to Main is “a small piece of a larger puzzle” to fixing downtown Buffalo.

“We’re all looking forward to it and it’s a long time overdue,” Mulley said, “and it would be really nice to see Main Street be Main Street again.”

Next door to Mulley’s gallery, Jaime Hargrove runs J. Christian Fashion Boutique, which has been open nearly three years. When the store first opened, the only customers she got were people who worked downtown. But each month, she said, she’s seen business pick up, and now many of her customers are visitors to Buffalo and those who live downtown.

People used to tell her she was “so nuts” for opening a store in downtown Buffalo, rather than somewhere near the Boulevard Mall or the Walden Galleria.

“I said, ‘Well, no, I can’t go around telling everybody to believe in Buffalo and be pro-downtown and then not do it,’ ” Hargrove said.

She said she’s excited to see cars come back to Main Street.

“It was a huge sacrifice up front because at first it was really hard, but I think it will pay off,” she said.

One of the newest storefronts on the block is ScentCerely Yours, a soy candle shop. The store opened a couple weeks before Christmas, said Don Snell of Alden, whose wife, Sharon, owns the store.

Operating the shop Friday afternoon, Don Snell said he worked for a company during the construction of the downtown Metro Rail line that waterproofed the tops of the tunnels.

To see people walking to Canalside with their ice skates – and to have potential customers now able to drive by and spot the store – is a welcome sign for downtown and for his wife’s shop, Snell said.

“We’re definitely ready,” he said.