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$27.5 million overhaul of Skyway means one-way traffic next summer

The Skyway will get a major overhaul next summer, and that is likely to present a daunting challenge for Southtowns commuters.

Think inbound in the morning and outbound in the evening.

The state will spend $27.5 million to rehabilitate the Skyway, reducing traffic to one lane during the work.

The Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Committee is assisting the state in evaluating detours and other traffic alternatives during the project, but so far the only option under study is keeping open one lane of the two-lane bridge while the other undergoes rehabilitation, said Hal Morse, executive director of the agency.

Computer models are being used to determine the best option, including increased use of other arteries like the Niagara Thruway and city streets to relieve the pressure on the Skyway, which the Route 5 accesses into downtown Buffalo.

Susan S. Surdej, spokeswoman for the regional state Department of Transportation, did not return several calls and an email seeking comment.

Rep. Brian Higgins questioned the need for such expensive repairs on a structure he predicts will face the wrecking ball in just a few years.

“Are they taking on more improvements than necessary while at the same time having lane closures that will create a mess?” he asked.

“It just seems like $27 million is a lot,” Higgins added.  “I would hope and I will ask DOT to spend what is needed to keep the traveling public safe.”

Higgins has questioned the Skyway’s long-term durability as a result of studies labeling it “fracture critical,” which means failure of one structural element could lead to a catastrophe. His efforts are also supported by State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy and Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns.

Higgin said he appreciates the need for repairs while the state studies the future of the structure, but predicted a lower span, a lift bridge or a tunnel eventually will replace the Skyway.

The bridge to the Buffalo’s Outer Harbor is slated for a significant maintenance next summer as it faces serious structural problems, according to 2018 projects listed with Western New York’s transportation planning agency. The project’s specifications indicate the repair work will make the bridge viable for another 20 years.

“It will involve rehabilitating the existing Skyway and deck repairs,” said Morse of the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Committee. “At the same time, we’ll have another [environmental impact statement] for a long-term look.”

Higgins makes progress on getting rid of the Skyway

At the same time, engineers will study options for the more than 60-year-old structure, including whether to tear it down. The same project list reveals that $6 million also is being spent to “evaluate potential long-term changes to the Skyway.” That study, announced one year ago, is scheduled for completion in 2018.

“The EIS will specifically evaluate alternatives including rehabilitation, replacement and/or removal of the Skyway,” the document reads.

Higgins is a champion of removing the structure, which he says is an obstacle to waterfront development. He questions why so much money is devoted to a project designed to extend the life of the Skyway for another two decades.

He has written to state Transportation Commissioner Matthew J. Driscoll to request the project be scaled back.

“I...write to advocate that the Department review all of the aspects of the proposed $27 million rehabilitation, toward the goal of reducing this investment to the lowest level safety concerns will allow,” Higgins wrote, “as the environmental review could lead, and it is my hope that it will lead, to the demolition of the Skyway once alternative infrastructure is constructed.”

The congressman also said that while the state is spending billions to build bridges for New York City, he believes it can afford to replace the Skyway. He points out that engineers categorize the bridge as “structurally deficient and functionally obsolete” and offers no room for disabled vehicles.

He considers the long-term study of the Skyway a “legal formality.”

“The fact that it is structurally deficient and functionally obsolete points to something new one way or another,” he said, claiming a federal stake in the process because Washington will mostly fund the project.

Higgins also called the Skyway an aesthetic blight on an emerging waterfront no longer devoted to the industrial use and heavy maritime traffic of the 1950s. While lake freighters still routinely deliver grain to the General Mills facility just up the Buffalo River, Higgins said they still would be able to pass under a lower span or through a lift bridge and that the jobs of hundreds of people who manufacture Cheerios and other products there will remain secure.

“The issue of General Mills can be addressed without keeping the current Skyway,” he said.

The congressman also pointed to previous studies indicating Skyway maintenance will continue to prove expensive, noting the last paint job alone cost $15 million. A 2014 DOT study predicted maintaining the bridge for the next 25 years would cost between $55 million and $68 million.

Higgins appears to be making a personal appeal to Driscoll, the former mayor of Syracuse who he says “had a vision for his city and ‘gets it.’”

“You have demonstrated tremendous vision both as the former mayor of an upstate city, and in your current role,” Higgins said in his letter to the commissioner. “I know that you understand that we don’t have to continue doing things the way we have for the past 60 years just because of bureaucratic inertia.”

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