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Editorial: State's compromise on Scajaquada merits support

Few people are going to be entirely happy with New York’s $104 million plan to turn the Scajaquada Expressway into a lower-speed boulevard.

Fans of Delaware Park want the road removed from the park. Motorists want a fast east-west route across the city. Neither is going to happen. Instead, the state Department of Transportation has tried to deliver a practical solution with concessions to enough interest groups that the public should be willing to accept the plan for the much-studied 2.2 miles of Route 198 between Grant Street and Parkside Avenue.

If not, the head of the DOT has made clear that the money dedicated to the project will be spent elsewhere. Take this version or the money will leave and the Scajaquada will remain an unsightly 30 mph (legally anyway) thoroughfare cutting through a historic Olmsted park.

The widely ignored speed limit was imposed two years ago after a tragic fatal accident. As it happens, the accident had nothing to do with speed, but it gave new impetus to the effort that has been underway for at least a decade to do something about the expressway.

DOT Commissioner Matthew Driscoll and his staff presented a reasonable case for their vision after taking into consideration the interests of competing stakeholders. The agency has come up with a workable plan to create a boulevard that bicyclists, pedestrians and even motorists can live with, if given a chance.
The abrupt ramps on and off the expressway would be eliminated. Traffic-calming measures would end the dangerous interplay between motorists driving the speed limit and those nearly doubling it. Those measures would reduce the urge to speed. Raised crosswalks would make it safe for pedestrians to cross the road.

Left most unhappy and still determined to alter the state’s plan is the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, which last month called for getting the highway off the stone arch bridge over Delaware Avenue and dedicating it to pedestrians and bicyclists, giving them easier access from the park meadow to Hoyt Lake. Traffic would be rerouted using the current on- and off-ramps and the expressway and Delaware Avenue would cross at a signaled intersection.

It appeared to be an elegant solution, but it has a fatal flaw: The intersection of two busy roads would create huge backups. Sam Hoyt, regional president for Empire State Development, conjured an image most people around here can relate to: “You would have a Niagara Falls Boulevard-like intersection at Delaware Avenue at the top of the S-curves.”

The Olmsted crowd believes there is still a chance to negotiate. “We could all still come back to the table on this,” said Stephanie Crockatt, the conservancy’s executive director. She and other conservancy members want to restore the vision of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Were that possible or, more important, practical, then it would make sense to dismiss the state’s insistence that it has reached the end of the planning process.

Except that the state is adamant the process is over. State officials said the conservancy’s plan would negatively impact parkland and cultural resources in violation of federal law, making it a non-starter. The DOT’s plan returns one acre of land to the park, while the conservancy’s proposal took three more.

Moreover, the state’s plan allows for bicycles on the new Scajaquada Boulevard, providing a route along 5-foot-wide shoulders on either side of the roadway. It also allows two 11-foot-wide travel lanes in each direction separated by a median.

The median is another bone of contention. The conservancy doesn’t want one, believing that it would contribute to motorists driving faster. The DOT says it will reduce the possibility of head-on collisions and is needed to win federal approval for the project. In the end, the median was reduced from 12 feet wide to 4 feet, and plantings have been minimized at the request of corridor community groups. The median retains historic ornamental lighting consistent with an Olmsted design.

The DOT’s plan does not heal the injuries to the park and surrounding area made more than 70 years ago. Driscoll did not claim it does. He says the plan does the best possible job of serving competing interests, and the agency is moving ahead unless there is great public outcry.

If that happens the agency will walk away from the project and the area will be left with what we have now – an irritating slow highway scarring a significant park.

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