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Uncle Sam corrects his mistake by returning cars to Main Street

WASHINGTON – Thirty years after Uncle Sam gave Buffalo $500 million to build a light-rail line and remove cars from Main Street downtown, the federal government Monday gave the city another $18 million – to finish the job of returning cars to Main Street.

“It couldn’t be better news,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who fought for and announced the federal grant that will return cars to the stretch of Main Street between Exchange and Scott streets. “Now that huge mistake of 30 years ago is going to be undone, and downtown Buffalo is going to be bigger and better than ever.”

The $18 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s highly competitive Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, discretionary grant program, is the latest and last chunk of a $43.3 million federal investment over a decade to return cars to Main Street.

Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown said he expects work on the latest part of the project – which includes a new Metro Rail track crossover between Scott and Perry streets – to begin next year.

“This will give us everything we need to have a beautiful lower Main Street that stimulates additional investment and job creation,” the mayor said.

Brown said investors have told him that returning traffic to that stretch of lower Main Street could boost interest in the city’s tallest office building, One Seneca Tower, which is nearly vacant.

The mayor credited Schumer, who worked with the city on its grant application and called U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to lobby for the project, with being a key player in winning the grant.

But it was a team effort, with Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., also taking part.

“This marks the continuation of our successful incremental approach of the last decade” in returning cars to Main Street block by block as funding becomes available, Higgins said.

Since 2005, money became available for construction to return traffic to the 700, 600 and 500 blocks of Main Street – from Goodell Street south to Mohawk Street. While the 700 and 600 blocks are finished, the city is just now completing work on the project returning cars to Main Street’s 500 block, around Fountain Plaza.

Doing so is a smart move, Gillibrand said.

“Investing in our transportation infrastructure helps to create jobs now, and lay the foundation for more jobs tomorrow,” she said. “Combined with previously awarded federal funds, Buffalo will be able to continue the development momentum generated by these investments.”

Of course, that’s just what federal officials and city planners thought at the time of Metro Rail’s opening three decades ago, when they agreed to create a “pedestrian mall” on a once-busy street that for decades had housed bustling department stores such as AM&A’s and LL Berger.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, pedestrian malls were thought of as a way that downtown areas could compete with the growth of suburban shopping malls, said Richard T. Reinhard, who served as executive director of Buffalo Place, the downtown business improvement district, in the late 1980s.

The trouble in Buffalo was that the pedestrians never materialized, and the department stores – now fronting train tracks with all the ambience of a wind tunnel for much of the year – shut down within a few years of the 1984 opening of the downtown stretch of the light rail line.

Reinhard said Buffalo’s pedestrian mall failed because the city had none of the four ingredients of a successful pedestrian mall. Successful malls are short, they’re narrow, they’re located in a good climate, and they are either in college or tourist towns.

Then again, many other pedestrian malls failed over the years in other cities, too.

“A lot of mistakes were being made back then,” said Reinhard, who in 1989 became the first public figure in Buffalo to call for returning cars to Main Street.