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State rebuffs Higgins' call to scale back Skyway project

State transportation officials said they're open to Rep. Brian Higgins' call for signal synchronization on South Buffalo alternative routes to the Skyway during next year's redecking work, when traffic on the massive bridge will be reduced to one lane.

But they remain far less receptive to his renewed demand to drastically scale back the project while assessing the Skyway's future.

"It's absolutely not possible for us to do that," said Susan S. Surdej, regional spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.

Higgins resurrected the Skyway controversy Tuesday by again calling for the state to downgrade the major rehabilitation project it has scheduled for next year, even as a separate study determines if the bridge connecting downtown Buffalo to the Outer Harbor should be retained, removed or replaced.

The congressman said the three-year project -- with two years of lane closures -- that DOT now pegs at nearly $34 million will extend the life of the Skyway by 20 years when it could be slated for replacement much sooner. He has long advocated tearing down the bridge he calls outdated and an impediment to waterfront development.

"At the same time, we've agreed to study alternatives to the Skyway," he said, during an afternoon press conference at Wilkeson Pointe on the Outer Harbor. "So why extend the life of the Skyway when we could be beginning the process to replace it in four years?"

He instead suggested a project on the order of $7 million to $10 million to keep the structure safe while its long-term future is determined.

But Surdej, who attended Tuesday's Outer Harbor event, said even that suggestion poses problems. She noted that while the environmental impact study slated for 2018 will take three to five years to complete, the work on a Skyway alternative would take several more years.

"So we need to invest money ensure the safety of the Skyway," she said.

Residents attended a public information meeting Tuesday on plans to divert Skyway traffic while the redecking is done, held in the Gateway building across from Woodlawn Beach.

Frances Schena, a Hamburg resident, was less concerned about the impact proposed detours could have on traffic along Route 5 than she was about the prospect of the Skyway being demolished sometime in the future. Schena travels the Skyway, on average, four times a day.

"I would like to see the repairs made, yes. To me, going into the city over the Skyway, it creates this wonderful feeling. It's a vista. You can really appreciate the Buffalo skyline, especially with all that's being done in the Canalside area. I just think it's a marvelous opportunity for people to appreciate the architecture of Buffalo," Schena said.

"I think anything less than that -- or just a level, four-lane highway -- would be very boring and too much the same-old, same-old with nothing outstanding about it," Schena said.

Mike Barrett of South Buffalo described the Skyway as a main route of travel for him.

"Actually, I use the Route 5 to hook up with the (Interstate) 90, so I can go up to Tonawanda. That's why I was interested," Barrett said, explaining why he was attending the public meeting.

Barrett said he was satisfied with the alternative traffic routes the state transportation department presented Tuesday.

However, he also expressed some misgivings about the $34 million pricetag to repair the Skyway -- particularly if it's destined for demolition in less than two decades.

"Yeah, that kind of bothered me, even when it (was projected to) cost $10 million just to clean up the bridge for the servicing," Barrett said. "My thoughts were that it should just be a tunnel."

Higgins suggested Tuesday that New York State invest about $4,000 in each of the 45 signals along Ohio Street, Seneca Street and South Park Avenue to synchronize traffic signals and ease congestion during the two-year lane closures slated for the Skyway project. Another $5 million to $7 million could be used for repaving Seneca Street and South Park Avenue, with an added benefit of rejuvenating the formerly busy economic corridors.

“Let’s use traffic light synchronization on South Park and Seneca,” he said, suggesting few red lights on the routes between 6:30 and 9 a.m. for the morning commute and similar efforts in the afternoon. “With few signal delays commuters could be in downtown Buffalo at the same time as on the Skyway. It would divert a lot of traffic [from the Skyway].”

A similar effort on Clinton Street has already reduced travel time by 36 percent, he said.

Surdej said DOT will now suggest such an approach with the City of Buffalo.

"That's certainly something we can look at," she said.

She emphasized that the state is already formulating its own traffic mitigation plans that would involve using using two lanes for inbound traffic from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. and then reversing the pattern for the afternoon commute and other approaches for weekends. DOT has sought input from the Buffalo Bisons, Buffalo Sabres, the city's entertainment venues and the City of Buffalo for suggestions. It all attempts to ameliorate the traffic problems expected to result from lane closures that will affect approximately 46,000 vehicles daily on one of the city's major commuter routes.

"It's a very important transportation link in Western New York and it will take a lot of careful consideration," she said.

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

Higgins said he continues to question the need for such an extensive project, but recognizes that because the Skyway has no shoulders to accommodate backups, whatever the state does will result in significant traffic problems. As a result, he said, the plan should recognize the need for expedited traffic on alternate routes.

“The traffic technology is available,” he said.

The 2018 project also advances his call for cashless tolling at the Williamsville and Lackawanna barriers on the Thruway, he said. He noted that Hamburg and other Southtowns commuters would be encouraged to avoid the Skyway during construction if they were assured of avoiding traditional backups at the Lackawanna toll.

News Staff Reporter Harold McNeil contributed to this report.

Higgins seeks expedited study of Skyway's future

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