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State DOT will study future of Buffalo’s Skyway, alternatives to replace it

The state Department of Transportation will conduct the first comprehensive study of alternatives to the Skyway, examining the 60-year-old structure, alternative routes and what effect changes to the bridge could have on I-190.

Rep. Brian Higgins will announce the study today. Other studies have been done on the Skyway, but this one is critical for applying for federal transportation aid that might be used to tear down the bridge and fund alternatives.

“I just want to position Buffalo to make smart decisions about its transportation future, as opposed to investing tens of millions in an old, obsolete structure,” said Higgins, who has long advocated replacing the Skyway with a new bridge to the Outer Harbor.

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RELATED: Canalside, before the Skway

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Higgins was informed of the DOT’s decision to conduct the study – known as an Environmental Impact Statement – in July 18 letter from Commissioner Matthew J. Driscoll.

“As a former mayor, I fully understand and appreciate the criticality of reconnecting communities and enhancing opportunities for economic competitiveness,” Driscoll said.

He said the environmental study “will specifically address the mobility, environmental, cultural and economic impacts – as well as necessary mitigation actions – associated with both the removal and replacement of the Skyway.”

State Senator Tim Kennedy and Assemblyman Michael Kearns also have called on the State DOT to look at alternatives.

“Without evaluating alternatives to the Skyway, you have no options,” Higgins said. “We are stuck as a community to continue to rehabilitate a 60-year-old-bridge structure influenced by a riverfront economy that just doesn’t exist anymore. I’d like for the transportation infrastructure along the water, including and especially the Skyway, to reflect the new Buffalo.”

The Skyway is considered “functionally obsolete” and “structurally deficient” under federal highway standards, due to its lack of shoulders, a feature that forces the bridge to close when accidents occur. It is also categorized as “fracture critical,” which means failure of any one of a number of structural elements would lead to a catastrophic failure. The Skyway has also been called an aesthetic blight on the emerging waterfront.

In 2014, the Congress for New Urbanism named the 110-foot-tall, 1.4-mile-long bridge one of the nation’s 10 “Freeways Without Futures.”

“The Skyway bridge would not be approved for construction today,” Higgins said.

Maintenance is also expensive. A 2014 study by the DOT estimated it would cost between $55 million and $68 million to maintain the bridge over the next 25 years.

Painting the deck alone cost $15 million the last time it was done. The protective coating is necessary due to the excessive salting and resulting deterioration.

“It’s a financial and maintenance disaster,” Higgins said.

The congressman said the state study probably will take about two years to complete and is a necessary prerequisite to applying for federal transportation aid. Eighty percent of the money spent on transportation in New York State comes from the federal government.

“Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are talking about very, very substantial infrastructural investments in this country,” Higgins said. “If we don’t have alternatives to the Skyway, we miss that opportunity.

“Let’s say Congress does a major transportation and infrastructure bill next year. It would then coincide with the EIS, so the timing couldn’t be better.”

Higgins has noted that recent infrastructure investments could help provide alternative routes if the Skyway was removed. They include improvements to South Park Avenue and Ohio Street, and the ongoing reconstruction of the Bailey Avenue bridges. But critics have raised concerns that those alternatives are inadequate to handle the numbers of people who ride the Skyway daily.

email: msommer@buffnews.com

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