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3-year-old Maksym is a victim of state DOT’s obstinacy

The Scajaquada Expressway – finally, mercifully – is dead. It took a 3-year-old boy to kill it. Rather, it took the death of little Maksym Sugorovskiy to force the end of an expressway that never should have been.

There it is. At age 3, a small boy – through no choice of his own – changed this community for the better. At the cost of his hopes, his dreams, his future. It’s the very definition of senseless.

You can’t call Maksym a martyr. He was too young to understand what a cause is, much less to die for one. No, the little boy was more like a sacrificial lamb, felled on the altar of state officials’ obstinacy.

Technically, Maksym was killed the morning of May 30 by a driver who reportedly fell asleep at the wheel. Christian Myers’ 3,300-pound Chevy Malibu jumped a low curb and, in the time it takes to scream, careened across a ribbon of park grass to where Mary Sugorovskiy stood with her two children. Thankfully, Mary was merely bruised, and her 5-year-old daughter, Stephanie, is expected to recover from serious injuries. Maksym was not as fortunate.

Make no mistake, there was far more than a dozing driver on a sunny Saturday morning behind a little boy’s heart-crackingly tragic death.

Maksym was a victim of the state Department of Transportation’s relentlessly tunnel-visioned, car-centric culture. He was a casualty of the DOT’s deafness to decades of pleas from the community to transform an absurdly dangerous, park-cleaving highway into something safe, sane and sensible. Maksym was felled by state officials’ failure – having long refused to alter the road – to erect enough guardrails and concrete barriers to protect walkers, bikers and joggers in our signature Olmsted park.

Now, finally, all of that will change. The governor ordered the speed limit on the 3.3-mile stretch of Route 198 lowered from 50 mph to 30 mph. The DOT officials who transformed Manhattan’s notorious West Side Highway will come here to similarly alter the Scajaquada. Its lower-speed, saner future will likely include crosswalks, roundabouts, bordering trees and no more death-defying entrances and exits. As an added benefit, the changes will stitch together the halves of a glorious park that was bizarrely bisected by a high-speed road.

“Prior to last weekend, there was a lot of (DOT) resistance to a 30 mph parkway,” said Sean Ryan, the state assemblyman who has long lobbied for a saner Scajaquada. “The mandate and training of design engineers for decades has been ‘Highway is the best way.’ That mindset needs to change.”

The price of sanity – of protecting the community; of returning part of Delaware Park to walkers, bikers and joggers; of altering a take-your-chances expressway – is a couple of minutes added to the daily commute. Anybody out there think the cost is too high?

“We have always feared the worst,” said Mike DeLuca of the Parkside Community Association, of a neighborhood long beset by drivers veering off the expressway. “It has taken too long, and cost too much (with Maksym’s death), to get to this point.”

I get that people want to drive quickly from one place to another. That’s why we build expressways. But not every roadway should be a pedal-to-metal highway.

There has, over the past generation, been a steady national push to make urban streets friendlier for walkers and bikers. It is finally denting the vehicle-first mindset – set in Washington and funneled to states – that steered post-World War II transportation policy. We are erasing the mistakes of elevated roads that devalue city land and shoreline expressways that block people from waterfronts. From San Francisco’s Embarcadero to Niagara Falls’ Robert Moses Parkway, subtraction is addition.

It should have happened years ago with the Scajaquada. An assortment of block clubs, community groups, neighboring institutions and elected officials have beaten on the DOT’s door since the turn of this century. There have been a pile of studies – notably a 2005 report that included a widely praised 30 mph “boulevard” option – and a paucity of changes.

Despite the push for Scajaquada sanity, DOT regional director Darnell Kaminski last year proposed a 40 mph plan that didn’t significantly change the road’s stripes. The DOT’s mentality was cemented around a higher-speed connection between the Kensington Expressway and the Niagara Thruway. For that connection, we sacrificed part of a park, compromised our safety and –now – ended a little boy’s life.

“For years, we’ve been asking for change,” said DeLuca of Parkside, where neighborhood concerns date to the 1970s. “All we heard was a lot of ‘No.’ ”

The 3.3-mile Scajaquada stretch is frightening enough to tremble a Wallenda’s knees. The road is banked the wrong way. Its short-track entrances and exits turn drivers into prey for oncoming trucks. Its curbside light poles suffer frequent driver takedowns. The road has long been the transportation equivalent of amusement park bumper cars. Its longevity was, until last week, merely a disgrace. With Maksym’s death, it became a communal calamity.

Officials moved quickly afterward. There now are huge 30 mph signs along the road. Speed-monitoring indicators slow motorists. In the space of a half-hour Thursday, I saw two drivers pulled over for speeding. Permanent, vehicle-slowing design changes are coming.

There now is a concrete barrier along the stretch where Maksym was struck. People chalked messages on it at Tuesday’s memorial gathering. Among the multitude of RIPs and God Blesses, someone added a single, imperative sentence: Take This Highway Down.

We will soon, finally, cut the Scajaquada Expressway down to size. I wish it had fallen to a torrent of common sense, instead of through an outpouring of tears.