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Downgrade for Scajaquada is an upgrade for Buffalo

We will finally cut the Scajaquada Expressway down to size.

It took some 20 years of pleading, public forums, shelved plans and broken promises. But propelled by a little boy’s traffic-accident death and a do-it-now governor, the expressway that never should have been will be sliced, diced and – mercifully – downgraded to a safer, saner road.

The expressway built when America routinely sacrificed communities on the high-speed altar will largely lose its destructive power. Its power to wall off one side of a public college. The power to shade the lives of Parkside residents. The power to partition an Olmsted park. The power to disconnect adjacent neighborhoods.

All in the name of saving a couple of minutes of drive time.

I know that some people think a quicker trip is worth the hefty collateral damage. I’m not among them – and neither, more to the point – are state transportation officials.

Matt Driscoll announced the Scajaquada’s coming transformation Wednesday night at SUNY Buffalo State. The state’s new DOT commissioner said the once-50-mph road connecting the Kensington Expressway with the Niagara Thruway will be downgraded to a 30-mph boulevard.

Unlike now, when you have to pull on the reins to stay under 30 mph, coming changes in road design will make the lower speed limit seem natural, not abnormal. Traffic lights, crosswalks, narrower lanes, a bikeway, rumble strips and other makeovers will organically slow traffic and partly re-knit Delaware Park and the neighborhoods sliced in half by the Scajaquada.

The wrongly banked, chaotically designed, circa-1960s road careens like a thrill ride through Delaware Park. It’s a vestige of a carcentric era when driving from one place to another as quickly as possible mattered more than parks, neighborhoods, safety or – simply – people.

Its overdue demise is a fantasy-come-true for countless activists, park lovers, block clubs members, neighbors and store owners wise enough to know that reconnecting neighborhoods – and slowing vehicles – is good for business.

The DOT’s Driscoll – in a nice bureaucratic nod – acknowledged Wednesday those who for decades pushed for a safer, saner Scajaquada.

“I want to thank all of you who, over the years, have been involved in this process,” he told more than 100 people at the public forum. “It has taken way too long. That ends tonight.”

It was a night many thought would never come. The prevailing post-World War II policy from state – and national – transportation officials was tunnel-visioned on moving vehicles as fast as possible. People, neighborhoods, aesthetics and – sometimes – safety were an afterthought.

It looked like change was coming to the Scajaquada a decade ago. But a forward-thinking DOT official was transferred out of Buffalo, and with him went a slower-road sensibility.

Until now.

Lynn Williams was with the New Millennium group when – 14 years ago – it proposed a Scajaquada plan that looks like what the DOT’s Driscoll announced.

“I can’t remember ever hearing a DOT commissioner put transportation in the context of community, people and parks,” said Williams, a longtime activist. “It’s refreshing to see the DOT turning in that direction.”

I know some people still want a 50-mph connector, and the heck with anything else. A smattering of boos Wednesday greeted every “change is coming” promise. But I can’t see how saving a couple of minutes of travel time justifies the damage the expressway does, particularly when studies show only one of seven drivers goes the whole 3.3 miles. And it’s not like the road will disappear, or even narrow to one lane each way, as some activists want. It will still be there, minus its 50-mph insanity.

A twisting expressway that slashed through a public park, with aborted entry and exit ramps, curbside streetlights and a wrongly banked roadbed seemed designed to fuel accidents and encourage calamity. Tragically, the worst happened last May. An asleep-at-the-wheel driver jumped a curb and barreled into Delaware Park, crushing 3-year-old Maksym Sugorovskiy.

The outrage over Maksym’s death – for the lack of a guardrail – brought to a head years of frustration with the misbegotten expressway. Gov. Andrew Cuomo the next day dropped the speed limit to 30 mph. But the DOT soon resumed its foot-dragging, citing lack of money for road changes and a years-long study process.

Community pressure partly prompted Cuomo months ago to put Driscoll in charge. The DOT commissioner Wednesday promised shovels in the ground in 2018 for the $100 million project.

“The expressway was a historic mistake, it would never be built today,” said Sean Ryan, the state assemblyman who long pushed for change. “This is a giant step forward.”

Part of Buffalo’s new era involves erasing old errors. Goodbye, Scajaquada Expressway – and good riddance.