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Promised land elusive for Moses

There are certain words that instantly evoke the kind of government paralysis that hung over the region for decades: Peace Bridge expansion, Metro Rail extension, domed stadium.

Then there’s the Robert Moses Parkway, which might as well be in its own special category of bureaucratic indecision. The four-lane highway snakes along the Niagara River in Niagara County and has, for decades, been the path for millions of tourists who come to see the famous waterfalls.

It also became a curse on the City of Niagara Falls almost as soon as its last section opened to drivers in 1964. Just 10 years later, the state agreed to rip out the section of the road that separated state parkland from downtown Niagara Falls.

State officials at the time called it a “restoration.” City leaders, however, minced no words.

“The mayor of the city, E. Dent Lackey, 73 years old, is more precise,” a New York Times correspondent wrote in 1974. “He lauds the move as getting rid of ‘that damned Chinese Wall’ that many local leaders feel has harmed the tourism industry here for a decade by limiting pedestrian access to the popular cataract.”

With the euphoria of the country’s vast highway construction of the 1950s and ’60s worn off, Niagara Falls was stuck with a scenic path that siphoned off its own lifeblood. Yet it would take years before the state finally removed the highway from the state park and decades before it would even begin to shake off the paralysis about what to do with the rest of the road.

There has been so much debate that officials 10 years ago commissioned a report just to tally up all the studies done on the future of the parkway. One of those, a two-year “pilot program” that shut down two lanes of the Robert Moses Parkway in Niagara Falls, satisfied no one. Yet it lasted indefinitely.

Fifteen years later, the lanes still remain closed, an oversize sidewalk that does little but remind residents of the state’s inertia.

Now, finally, more than five decades after Robert Moses bulldozed his way through the city for a parkway that would later bear his name, there’s hope. Construction is underway on the southern section of the parkway that takes drivers into Niagara Falls State Park. Residents have until the end of the month to speak up about a plan to remove another 2 miles of the road along the Niagara Gorge in the city.

It’s a big step forward in reconnecting the City of Niagara Falls with its waterfront. But there’s this reality: Most of the money hasn’t been lined up to actually do the work on the 2-mile stretch north of downtown. Rep. Brian Higgins has called on the New York Power Authority, which helped plan and build the road as part of the construction of the Niagara Power Project, to pay the cost of righting “one of the most egregious historic wrongs” in the Falls.

Higgins has a good point. It might be 50 years too late, but there’s still opportunity here for the Power Authority to do the right thing. Without funding, residents could be waiting another five decades to reconnect the City of Niagara Falls to the Niagara Gorge.

Moses, who was chairman of the Power Authority at the time the Niagara Power Project was built, promised in a 1961 article in the Niagara Gazette that the “beauty of the falls comes first.”

If only that had really been the case.