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Questions cloud future of planned DL&W bridges to KeyBank Center

When transit planners first envisioned a renovated Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Terminal at the foot of Main Street, one of its most attractive features included a pedestrian bridge to the adjacent KeyBank Center.

Buffalo Sabres fans could arrive via Metro Rail to a glittering new DL&W complete with retail and restaurants, then cross South Park Avenue, shielded from the elements through the new overhead link.

But a host of construction challenges now put the pedestrian bridge as well as another to the arena from an adjacent parking structure in “flux,” as the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority struggles to achieve ts objectives and stay within its $43 million budget.

The bridges could still become reality when the project is completed in late 2021, the NFTA says, but right now they remain surrounded by question marks.

“We’re in a state of flux to see what we can afford,” said Thomas George, the NFTA’s director of public transit, “because of extensive challenges we did not see.”

Those construction challenges include:

• The need for significant track work in the Metro Rail yard at the DL&W, as well as a nearby project aimed at returning cars to Main Street.

• A complicated maze of underground utilities precluding construction of a northern stair tower, necessary under current plans to support the pedestrian bridge.

A 2016 rendering of a proposal for the DL&W terminal. (NFTA)

• Most significantly, discovery of serious erosion of the DL&W’s seawall along the Buffalo River, already causing sink holes in the century-old complex. Absent some other source of funds, rebuilding the seawall will devour substantial dollars budgeted for the entire project.

Planners are determining whether one of the two “stair towers” planned for the DL&W exterior must be eliminated under current funding plans. George noted the electrical, water and sewer lines buried beneath South Park could prevent construction of the $3 million tower, designed to support the pedestrian link as well as providing stairway access to the arena.

“Right now, we’re asking if it is possible to do a bridge without the stair tower,” George said. “We’re looking into that.”

The situation forced planners to ask if enough pedestrians gather at that point to make such a tower necessary. Still, the tower has always been viewed as a new and stronger way to link the arena with burgeoning Canalside attractions.

“It may or may not be in the design package until we get a feel for what we’re dealing with,” George said.

Meanwhile, a second stair tower planned for South Park and Illinois Street would remain, George said.

Planning for the new DL&W also includes the Buffalo Sabres, who host thousands of fans arriving by Metro Rail. The team was looking forward to the new stop’s “connectivity” to eliminate trudging through snow from the current Special Events Station.

“Any time you can have a covered bridge or parking structure, it’s an advantage for us,” said Michael Gilbert, the Sabres’ vice president of administration and HarborCenter general manager. “But it’s coming down to a matter of dollars and cents.”

The project has already gained $26 million in support from New York State, while Rep. Brian Higgins is spearheading efforts to obtain another $19 million in federal grants (adding to $45 million). George did not dismiss the possibility that “creative” financing could address the situation, including new partners or new grants.

Now attention must focus on the seawall project, he added, which engineers believe will require addressing erosion underneath an ancient concrete cap on wooden pilings.

“We’re looking to create a new isolated wall on the face of the existing wall to restore the area and make it stable,” he said.

Serious erosion of the DL&W’s seawall along the Buffalo River has been discovered. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

About 15 percent of design work for the project has been completed, George said, with an aim of achieving the 30 percent mark and making key decisions about its overall design by late summer. Track work is slated to start in the spring, along with building a passenger platform in the DL&W’s lower story, and then cutting access holes for planned stairs and escalators to the second floor.

He also said a separate bid package will be let next spring to create a lobby on the second floor.

“It’s still a viable project,” he said, “but it’s not a simple project, that’s for sure."

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