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2005 study back in forefront after tragic accident in park

When a nationally known architect and engineers concluded their three-year planning study, they proposed among other things turning most of the Scajaquada Expressway into a low-speed, tree-lined parkway with bike paths and pedestrian crosswalks.

But that report was shelved for 10 years.

Now, after a 3-year-old boy was killed Saturday when a car careened off the expressway and into Delaware Park, many of the ideas contained in that Scajaquada Corridor Study of 2005 may finally come to pass.

Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, who has led the charge to implement changes along the high-speed road, outlined some of the current plans during a news conference Thursday near the pedestrian overpass of Route 198.

“People have been working on the issue of a calmer Scajaquada for a number of years,” Ryan said. “The good news is that the debate over the Scajaquada highway is over.”

Ultimately changing the road’s designation from an “urban principal arterial expressway” to a “parkway” requires federal approval, added Ryan, who had no timetable for when that designation might occur.

“Downgrading a road is not something people usually do,” he said.

Ryan said the state Department of Transportation will consider several interim traffic-calming measures, including traffic lights, speed bumps and possibly repainting and narrowing the lanes.

The measures “send a message to drivers this is a 30-mph roadway,” he said.

Changes to the road will cover its entire 3.2-mile length.

“We’re not just looking at these measures to take place in a small area. We’re looking at the whole stretch,” Ryan said.

The DOT will consider closing the expressway on some weekends this summer to study the impact on traffic patterns. Engineers also will study traffic patterns related to the new speed limit and other engineers with experience in highway downgrades will be coming to Buffalo to study the expressway.

Maksym Sugorovskiy was killed Saturday when a westbound vehicle veered off the Scajaquada toward the park’s Ring Road, striking the boy and his sister, who was critically injured.

By Sunday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo directed the state DOT to lower the speed limit on the state-owned Scajaquada to 30 mph, from 50 mph, an action that city leaders and transportation officials viewed as a first step in the transformation from expressway to parkway.

“He pushed aside 10 feet of reports and engineering studies,” Ryan said, referring to years of previous research that hadn’t been acted upon.

One of the most comprehensive studies of how to turn the Scajaquada into a parkway was conducted by Wendel Duchscherer Architects & Engineers for the city and the DOT.

That firm hired as a consultant Joseph R. Passonneau, an award-winning architect from Washington, D.C., with a reputation as an advocate for pedestrian-friendly roads. The team of experts concluded its study in 2005, and offered three alternatives: no action, a four-lane boulevard with a 30- or 35-mph speed limit or a four-lane arterial with a speed limit of 45 mph.

“Passonneau was a tough old bird who could talk to the DOTs of the world in their own language,” said Rick Reinhard, who served as chief of staff for then-Mayor Anthony M. Masiello from 1996 to 1997. “What came out of that was the city got some money, partnered with the state and issued a (request) to have engineers study the expressway. The bottom line is that a plan existed in 2005, and it said all the right things. It’s great that Cuomo reduced the speed limit to 30 mph and put barriers up, but that is not the long-term answer.”

The study required years to complete – from 2002 to 2005.

“All of this stuff was identified 10 years ago, but not much has happened,” Reinhard added. “The city didn’t push it. It was a new administration at the time. Maybe they were not into the same things Masiello was into.”

Michael J. DeGeorge, spokesman for Mayor Byron W. Brown, said: “The city and the mayor have been in favor of changes (to the Scajaquada) for some time.”

Reinhard made no secret of his distaste for the four-lane arterial built in the 1950s to alleviate traffic congestion on streets surrounding the park.

“It needed to be a parkway and not an expressway,” said Reinhard, who now is principal of Niagara Consulting Group and lives in Washington.

Joan McDonald, commissioner of the DOT, said she is “well aware” of that 2005 study and said the DOT has conducted “an extensive and thorough analysis of several options to reconfigure the Scajaquada Expressway, engaging elected officials and concerned community members over the past decade.”

Last year, she said the DOT presented its findings on alternatives to the existing expressway, and at that time, local and community officials requested that the Transportation Department consider two additional “more-complicated alternatives,” she said.

Common Council Member Michael J. LoCurto, who represents the Delaware District, also is familiar with the 2005 study. His office was involved in the many public stakeholder meetings on the Scajaquada held throughout the community since he took office in 2006.

“When it went into an environmental-impact phase, its focus shifted to traffic flow rather than reconnect the highway with the park,” LoCurto recalled. “I don’t know if there were other institutions who pushed back against the lower speed limits. But all along there was a consensus among members of the community who sought a pedestrian-friendly low-speed urban parkway instead of a highway.”

Tim Tielman, director of Campaign for a Greater Buffalo, said many reasons underlie the lack of action on the 2005 study.

“I hate to say this but very often projects occur in response to a calamity,” he said. “The calamity can be a little boy’s death or Hurricane Sandy or Katrina. It’s awful. But the thing you don’t want to happen is to have it occur in vain and then to keep on repeating the same mistakes.”

Work on the Scajaquada began in the 1950s with construction of the highway’s underpass at Main Street, which required the elimination of the old Humboldt Parkway. Construction continued into the 1960s, cutting through the park and neighborhoods of the middle and upper West Side.

“They just wanted to get the traffic off the streets that was choking the Delaware Park area,” said Greg Lodinsky, a Parkside neighborhood resident and former chairman of Preservation Buffalo Niagara. “Nottingham, Middlesex, all those streets were overrun by crosstown traffic. The 198 would mitigate the traffic and put the traffic on the expressway.

“There was a different mindset then,” Lodinsky added. “Cutting down trees to make way for the expressway was viewed as progress. The expressway was seen as progress.”

News Staff Reporter Janice L. Habuda contributed to this report. email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com