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DOT roadblock holds up Transit Drive-In’s plans for fifth screen

LOCKPORT – A proposed fifth movie screen at Lockport’s Transit Drive-In may have been blocked by the state Department of Transportation.

DOT regional spokeswoman Susan S. Surdej said Wednesday that the department is “willing to work this out,” but theater owner Rick Cohen said Tuesday the DOT’s suggestions for relieving traffic congestion in front of the theater “would not be financially feasible.”

The DOT became involved because Cohen’s expansion plan includes a new exit-only driveway for theater customers onto South Transit Road, which is Route 78.

Surdej said, “Before we will grant a permit for that, staff met with him and said he has to mitigate existing traffic problems with traffic queueing on the shoulders and in the median.”

The DOT, according to Cohen, wants him to move the theater’s main entrance to the south; build a 580-foot-long “queueing lane” parallel to South Transit Road; and move his ticket booth from the roadside to the back of the property.

That all would be “instead of people queueing on the shoulder as they’ve done for the last 64 years,” Cohen said. “What they want us to do would not be financially feasible.”

Surdej said, “It’s not being dictated how he deals with the problem. A suggestion was given to him, but it’s not the only way the problem can be solved … I don’t think it’s as black-and-white as it’s being portrayed.”

During the spring, summer and fall, Cohen operates the only regularly functioning movie theater in Niagara County between Niagara Falls and Middleport.

Cohen said the traffic backups generally occur on Friday and Saturday nights in the summer when a big blockbuster film is premiering. That’s most likely to occur only on nice weekends between the end of the school year and the opening of the Erie County Fair, he contended.

Cohen said the whole point of his expansion plan, besides admitting more customers, is to get cars off the road sooner.

“Does it really make sense for me to invest half a million dollars for eight Fridays and eight Saturdays?” Cohen asked.

Surdej confirmed Cohen’s statement that if he doesn’t want to cut a new driveway onto Route 78, the theater isn’t required to make any traffic changes.

The fifth screen would simultaneously show the most popular new movie, which also would continue to be placed on Screen No. 1. Cohen said that now, when customers get to the gate and find the big movie is sold out, there’s often a discussion in their car about whether they want to see any of the movies on the other three screens, and if so, which one.

All four of his screens usually show double features. Screens 2, 3 and 4 generally show movies that have been out for a few weeks and seldom sell out, the Town Planning Board was told when the project was unveiled Feb. 2.

Screen No. 1 has a capacity of about 250 vehicles. The new Screen 5 would accommodate 200 to 225 more. Screens 2 and 3 have 175 to 200 parking spaces each; Screen 4 has 225.

“The wait time is caused by the fact we don’t have capacity on some summer nights when certain movies come out,” Cohen said.

It’s not unusual to see long lines of cars waiting to get into the drive-in, both northbound traffic on the shoulder or sometimes interfering with through traffic in the right-hand northbound lane of the four-lane highway. Southbound traffic backs up in the median, waiting to make a left turn into the theater.

Surdej said, “The responsibility is on the business owner, since the business is the cause of the traffic problems.”

Cohen estimated the 12-foot-wide waiting lane would cost $50,000, a new entrance and sign would be $10,000 to $20,000, and a new ticket booth would be more expensive than the $30,000 the current building cost in 1999.

Electrical and fiber optic cables also would have to be moved.