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Pioneers in 2002 pushed for saner Scajaquada

There is no satisfaction in it. Indeed, all of them are disheartened that it took a tragedy to make state officials see the light on an absurdly designed road.

The only measure of pleasure for Chuck Banas, Deborah Lynn Williams and the others will come if the Department of Transportation does what they pushed it to do 13 years ago: transform the Scajaquada Expressway – an anachronism from a bygone era – into a safe, sane, lower-speed boulevard.

If the nature of Route 198 had been different, there is a good chance 3-year-old Maksym Sugorovskiy would be alive today. A driver reportedly fell asleep at the wheel May 30, jumped a low curb and crossed the ribbon of grass separating the 50 mph expressway from Delaware Park’s people-clogged Ring Road. He cut down Maksym and his 5-year-old sister, who is expected to recover from serious injuries.

It did not have to be.

What happened only deepens the regret for those who were part of the New Millennium Group, a band of young professionals – formed in the ’90s – who injected a progressive sensibility into public policy. They battled for a better Peace Bridge and plaza. They fought the demolition of downtown buildings for parking lots. And, in 2002, they crafted a plan to downgrade the Scajaquada to a 30-mph parkway.

“The road does not work well as a highway,” their plan noted, “and is completely incompatible with its surroundings.”

Based on New Urbanism ideas, the “vision” – co-authored by Banas and Patrick McNichol – imagined a narrower road with roundabouts, crosswalks, a curbside tree line and bike lanes. The changes would slow traffic, aid nearby neighborhoods, inject safety and re-knit a park cleaved by a high-speed road – reversing the urban-expressway mentality that infected post-World War II America.

“We wanted to offer solutions, not just say, ‘This is no good,’ ” Williams recalled recently, at a downtown coffee shop. “We believed that change could come from the community, instead of some official agency telling us what was going to happen.”

They weren’t the first, nor the only ones, who pushed to tame the road. Delaware Park activists have been sideswiped by the DOT for a quarter-century. But the New Millennium Group’s 2002 report got traction with then-Mayor Tony Masiello. The DOT’s Brian Rowback seemed on board with the “boulevard” concept – as reflected in a 2005 DOT alternative that had wide support. Then, nothing. The enlightened idea was kicked to the curb.

“I’m not sure why the DOT got cold feet,” Banas told me. “All of a sudden, the funding wasn’t there.”

Rowback was transferred. New Millennium Group members partly redirected energies into new families or careers. Williams joined Sen. Charles Schumer’s staff, Elise Banas became a City Honors teacher. Her husband, Bill, is an engineer, Chuck Banas is now an urban design consultant. McNichol has a federal job.

The Scajaquada remained a tragedy waiting to happen.

“The DOT was never able to reconcile its desire for a high-speed expressway with the community’s demand for a 30 mph road,” said Sean Ryan, the assemblyman who has pushed for a sane Scajaquada. “I think this tragedy has finally broken the logjam.”

The group’s 2002 report isn’t just filed under What Could Have Been. It – and subsequent DOT-rejected “boulevard” options – remains What Should Be.

Except for family and friends, the impact of Maksym’s death will fade in the coming months. We need to keep the image of his smiling face alive in our minds, to drive the pursuit of a sane, sensible Scajaquada.

Ryan is “guardedly optimistic” the DOT will give the community the lower-speed, park-sensitive roadway it wants. If not now, when?

“This is not the time to take a half-step,” said Williams. “The DOT needs to go all the way.”

As seen in the weeks since Maksym’s death, you can’t change the nature of the Scajaquada simply by lowering the speed limit. It’s not easy, driving 30 mph on a road built for 50.

The point was made in NMG’s 2002 report: “Reducing traffic speeds ... will not be accomplished by simply erecting 30 mph signs. The high-speed geometric of the current expressway must [change].”

To slow traffic, the road needs to be unsafe at higher speeds. There is a science to the change, spelled out in more studies than there are excuses.

“I’m angry that it took a tragedy for things to change,” Chuck Banas said. “Intelligent alternatives have long been presented, and continually rejected.”

Enough rejection. We need to look back, to move forward.