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Why is Niagara Falls Boulevard so dangerous for pedestrians? Safety audit spells it out

Niagara Falls Boulevard was built with motor vehicles, not pedestrians, in mind, and its design creates dangerous conditions for people walking along or across the busy roadway.

That's the main conclusion of a safety audit conducted by the towns of Amherst and Tonawanda and spurred by the deaths of six pedestrians over the last five years. Employees from the towns, which share a border along the boulevard, walked the road for about eight hours early this summer and recently completed their report.

The joint audit found there aren't enough intersections with signals and crosswalks, the road is too dark at night, it takes too long for pedestrians to cross, there are too many driveways and highway off- and on-ramps that challenge pedestrians and it can be too difficult for people to signal their intention to cross.

"It's made to move a lot of cars," said James B. Jones, Tonawanda's town engineer, who took part in the audit.

The state Department of Transportation, which owns and maintains the road, didn't help produce the audit. But following the most recent pedestrian death, in May, the DOT agreed to immediately perform some safety work along the road, including re-striping crosswalks and making sure every crosswalk push button is operational.

The towns recommend their own short-term changes, such as adding extra lighting. But it took decades for the problems along Niagara Falls Boulevard to develop, and fundamentally fixing the road's flaws won't happen overnight.

"We have to fix the pattern of development, but that's going to take years," said Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa. "We need to get the state to make the improvements they need to make, and then we need to commit to long-term improvements in that corridor."

Jennifer Duffin was killed while crossing Niagara Falls Boulevard between Inn Keepers Lane and Willow Ridge Drive. Her family has sued Amherst, the Town of Tonawanda and the driver over her death. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News file photo)

The audit examined a primarily commercial, 2.4-mile stretch of Niagara Falls Boulevard, from the intersection with Ridge Lea and Koenig roads north to East Robinson Road. Up to 53,000 vehicles travel that section of road every day.

It's a state road, but the towns of Tonawanda, on the west, and Amherst, on the east, control the lighting, sidewalks and use of land on their respective sides.

The speed limit is 45 mph for most of this section.

"That in itself just says, 'cars rule,' " Jones said. "The pedestrian safety measures that they take are basically to make sure that nobody's in the way of cars."

Six people were fatally injured on the boulevard since 2013, most recently Jennifer L. Duffin, 41, who was killed May 12. Another 11 injury crashes were reported.

Duffin's death drove the towns to action. Employees spent about eight hours on June 25 walking the boulevard, joined at times by DOT representatives, Tonawanda Supervisor Joseph Emminger and Kulpa.

"We wanted to look at this from a pedestrian's point of view, as opposed to a car's point of view," Jones said.

The audit breaks down the road into eight subsections. Each has observations from the team, photographs and a map detailing the locations of signaled intersections, bus stops and other physical characteristics, along with questions and problems noted by team members. (Read the safety audit here.)

The audit team raised concerns about bus stops that lack benches, street corners that aren't fully accessible for people with disabilities, uneven sidewalk surfaces, missing sidewalks, driveways that are too close to crosswalks, electronic countdown signs for pedestrians that don't work and narrow marked crosswalks, among numerous other issues.

In general, the team found, pedestrians have to walk too far to get to intersections with signals and crosswalks and they have to wait too long to cross when they get there. And even for those who do use intersections with crosswalks, some signals don't give people enough time to safely cross the road, which is five or seven lanes wide.

What do the towns recommend?

In the short term, officials want to make sure pedestrian push buttons are close to the signaled intersections; reduce the number of curb cuts, and driveways, on some properties; make the area of the Youngmann Memorial Highway underpass and ramps easier to navigate for pedestrians; place trees and pavers as a more distinct buffer between the sidewalk and the roadway; and install dozens of new street lights on either side of the boulevard, a project that will start next year.

"They're very fixable items," Kulpa said.

Adding a protected bike lane is one of a number of longer-term improvements under consideration.

Jones said raised medians would make crossing safer for pedestrians. Installing pedestrian-controlled HAWK beacons, similar to a device in use on Sheridan Drive, also could help, as would shrinking the number of driving lanes or lowering the speed limit, officials said.

Encouraging pedestrian-friendly development, instead of businesses that only cater to vehicles, also is a change the officials would like to see down the road.

"That's a self-perpetuating model, auto dealers and auto repair shops," Jones said.

The DOT in June agreed to take its own emergency action along Niagara Falls Boulevard. Crews painted high-visibility, ladder-bar crosswalks at every intersection with a signal, and also repainted the stop bars at those intersections that tell vehicles where to wait until the light turns green, said spokeswoman Susan Surdej.

She said workers also made sure all pedestrian push buttons are in working order and checked how much time pedestrians are given to safely get across the road.

The DOT has hired a consultant to perform its own assessment of the Niagara Falls Boulevard corridor, a study that should wrap up next year, Surdej said.

"We're going to work cooperatively with the towns of Amherst and Tonawanda," she said.

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