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Days numbered for I-90’s ‘big blue water tower’ blues

The Thruway’s almost nightly eastbound backups – the joy of radio traffic reporters and the bane of commuters near “the big blue water tower” – should be headed toward extinction under state plans to add a fourth lane to the superhighway.

New York State Thruway Authority officials plan to add a fourth eastbound lane to the approximately 1-mile stretch of Interstate 90 between the Youngmann Memorial Highway (I-290) and Kensington Expressway (Route 33). A fourth westbound lane was added to that section last year.

The result will be an “L.A. type” stretch – rare for upstate – featuring eight lanes of two-way traffic in what Thruway officials label one of the nation’s 50 most-congested bottlenecks.

“There’s really been a positive impact on the westbound lanes,” said Maria C. Lehman, the Thruway Authority’s interim executive director. “Now, this will provide a better approach there where you have all that congestion.”

Traffic tie-ups are a frequent occurrence during rush hour on this stretch of the Thruway as commuters leaving the city head east toward the Williamsville toll barrier. Volume on the Thruway’s “free section” hits about 145,000 vehicles daily, Lehman said, almost twice as much as the Kensington Expressway and equivalent to the Thruway’s busiest downstate stretches near the Tappan Zee Bridge. “That corridor sees a lot of traffic,” she said.

The total project is expected to cost $4.5 million.

The project would have the added benefit of making life more pleasant for residents living near the busy highway, according to many of those who heard the plans outlined at an open house Thursday evening at the Cleveland Hill Fire Hall. They were particularly pleased at the prospect of noise barriers.

Robert Hanel and his wife, Jean, said that when they bought their home on Susan Lane seven years ago, they hoped the Thruway Authority ultimately would put up a noise barrier.

Hanel said he believes that the noise barrier “will be good for the neighborhood.” The Hanels and their two daughters and son like to camp out in their backyard in warm weather. Robert Hanel said that such campouts in the past have had to deal with “pretty miserable” noise and dirt conditions from the Thruway, which the tall noise barrier should eliminate.

Traffic conditions already have significantly improved following the 2015 project that added the fourth westbound lane and a new Cleveland Drive bridge. The tricky “weave” from the Thruway to the westbound Kensington has eased, Lehman said, providing a major safety improvement. Backups also decreased because extra space is now provided for breakdowns and accidents.

The project also may involve installation of acoustic walls between the eastbound road and the backyards of its Cheektowaga neighbors. Following federal and state regulations, Lehman explained that 100 property owners have been asked in a mail survey whether they want the high walls in their yards to block noise.

If half – 50 – of those mailings are returned, and half – 25 – of those returned favor the wall, Lehman said the Thruway Authority will proceed.

Lehman said the project, slated to start this spring, should make major inroads in reducing Thruway congestion.

“This is really good news,” she said. “It’s not a silver bullet, but we will be doing one piece at a time to improve the corridor.”

The residents attending Thursday evening’s open house had a range of observations about what it is like to live next to one of the busiest stretches of highway in upstate New York.

Anthony Ventola and Robert Ciesielski, who are next-door neighbors on St. Paul Street with backyards facing the Thruway, believe that the noise barrier will be a good addition but questioned why no plans are in the works to remove the 6-foot-tall chain-link fence that runs behind their house. Ventola and Ciesielski said the fence, which will remain between their properties, is badly rusting. “I want them to take that fence down and leave the nice (noise barrier) wall,” Ventola said.

Ciesielski said he put up his own wooden fence in his backyard where the chain-link fence stops “just so I don’t have to look at the Thruway.”

Jonathan Sowinski, a transport planner for the Hatch Mott MacDonald firm of Buffalo, which worked on the noise barrier project for the Thruway Authority, said the barrier will be constructed of 1½-inch-thick treated wood and regularly maintained by Thruway crews.

John and Sandy Bohen, who live on Elaine Court, felt that the noise barrier would be a fine addition to the neighborhood and cut down on a lot of the dirt blown off barriers the Thruway Authority installed near their neighborhood.

But John Bohen said he wishes that the state had opted for brick noise barriers like those on some other sections of the Thruway. But he acknowledged that “Anything will be better than what he have now.”

Sandy Bohen said she would like the authority to also redesign the entrance to the Thruway from Cleveland Drive in Cheektowaga, which has been the site of frequent accidents, including a fatal one in the summer.

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