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Opposition mounts to state's Scajaquada redesign

State officials continue to press forward with their latest proposal to convert the Scajaquada Expressway into a lower-speed boulevard, but the plan is increasingly meeting with opposition from those who say it doesn't go far enough to encourage and protect both pedestrians and bicyclists.

The New York State Department of Transportation has scheduled a public meeting at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 25 to discuss and receive input on the redesign of the Scajaquada Corridor. The hearing – which was rescheduled from mid-December because of weather – will be held in the auditorium at Frederick Law Olmsted Public School 64, 874 Amherst St., at Lincoln Parkway. Public comment will be accepted on the proposal through Feb. 8.

But opponents, including GoBike Buffalo and the Scajaquada Corridor Coalition, are mobilizing to voice their criticism of the plan and demand changes. They're calling on their members or supporters to sign petitions or send letters and emails to the state agency's regional director, Frank Cirillo, to "express our displeasure" with a design plan that they say "fails to meet Governor Cuomo's transformational vision" for the roadway.

"NYSDOT needs to address the community's priorities and demonstrate that this project will have a positive impact on economic development, public health, environmental sustainability and the qualify of life of all residents," the draft petition reads.

The pending battle shows not only how far the effort to redesign the road has come since advocates began calling for change almost two decades ago, but also how far it may still have to go before satisfying elements of the community.

In their current plans, state engineers have talked of calming traffic with narrower lanes, a landscaped median, new trees and other plantings, and crossings for pedestrians and bicycles. Those ideas have been considered and removed from plans before, but appear to be solid now. The changes would apply to a 2.2-mile stretch from Grant Street to Parkside Avenue.

But the Scajaquada Corridor Coalition – whose members include the Olmsted Parks Conservancy, the Parkside Community Association, the Grant-Amherst Business Association, Restore our Community Coalition and GoBike Buffalo – says that's not enough, and has been pushing for more radical changes to "rightsize" the Scajaquada to "fit better in the surrounding landscape," said GoBike Executive Director Justin Booth.

The new date has been announced for the final public hearing on plans for the Scajaquada Expressway. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News file photo)

He said the state is still focused primarily on the flow of traffic and traffic safety, rather than making the roadway and park safe for pedestrians and bicyclists, with intersections that even people with disabilities can calmly cross.

"You're looking at 100 feet to cross in some locations," he said. "It's really about focusing not just on moving traffic and reducing congestion, but on making the roadway safe and providing many other benefits than just traffic moving."

And he criticized the state for failing to consider public input.

"The process has not been the best," he said. "We provided a lot of feedback, and it doesn't necessarily translate into a real response. ... That's part of the reason why we don't have a plan that's widely supported and why there's strong opposition to what the DOT has been laying out."

He acknowledged complaints expressed by many people about the slower mandated speed on the road now, and even said he agreed with that frustration. "It is incredibly hard to drive a car on an expressway that is designed for a much higher speed," he said. "I find, myself, that I have to put my car on cruise control, because you automatically have a tendency to go faster because it's designed to go faster."

That's why it needs to be more of a city street, with more intersections and access, to change how the road feels, in accordance with a "complete streets" concept, he added.

"The design truly influences behavior," he said. "It's all about how we design our streets in a way that facilitates a 30-mph speed while supporting walkers and bicyclists.

"That's the kind of conversation it's important to have. Are we willing to sacrifice 10 minutes of our time?"

NYSDOT Commissioner Matthew Driscoll addresses a public hearing on the Scajaquada Expressway at SUNY Buffalo State on Feb. 10, 2016. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

The 1960s-era roadway carries more than 50,000 cars and trucks daily between the Kensington Expressway and the Niagara Thruway, although only one-third of the traffic actually travels end to end. But critics say the highway should never have been built, that it destroys the beauty and potential of an Olmsted park, causes harm to the environment and individual health and limits connections with neighborhoods and the two sides of the park itself.

In response, state officials have been working for more than 15 years to come up with a way to reconfigure New York State Route 198 by transforming it from a car-focused highway to a lower-speed, parklike boulevard. Proposals have gone back and forth over the years, with no real progress in the end. But the stalled effort gained significant momentum after a young boy was killed in Delaware Park in May 2015, when the driver of a car on the Scajaquada fell asleep at the wheel and his car jumped the curb and crashed into the boy and his family on the grass.

Cuomo immediately ordered the state DOT to lower the speed limit to 30 mph,  and directed the agency to complete the redesign. Officials promptly put up barriers, restriped the road, added rumble strips to slow down vehicles and put up new signage to warn drivers of lower speeds. The agency, which has already held multiple public meetings and solicited feedback directly through various groups, is now seeking to complete its environmental review process early this year, before completing the design work, signing a construction contract and beginning work by 2018.

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