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Editorial: Expand the Skyway study

When it comes to the prospect of tearing down the Skyway and replacing it with some better alternative – the long hoped-for result championed by Rep. Brian Higgins and others – what was once remote now seems possible. Why? Things have changed. But the DOT needs to get on board.

Higgins, D-Buffalo, is now in the majority in the House of Representatives and there is serious talk about a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill coming to the floor in June. In addition, State Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, is also a member of the new majority party and has been appointed chairman of the transportation committee.

These are two game-changers that underscore the viability of directing transportation dollars to Buffalo to replace the Skyway. There is only one problem: We’re not ready. And, for that, there is no excuse.

Back in May 2016, Higgins and Kennedy called for an assessment of the Skyway’s removal and a comprehensive review of alternatives to what motorists have become sadly accustomed – an elevated highway that hinders the views and uses of the burgeoning waterfront and which, in addition, is functionally obsolete, structurally deficient and fracture critical. That’s trouble.

Matthew Driscoll, Department of Transportation commissioner at the time, wrote that the department would “commence (the study) for the Skyway and surrounding transportation corridors during the current State Transportation Plan period.”

That period has now extended through March 2020. It took two years and two months for the plan to get underway this past fall – far too long. Work needs to speed up and it needs to look at options to the Skyway. In the meantime, the DOT is coughing up around $30 million to rehabilitate a bridge that will always be substandard.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has taken a particular interest in Western New York’s revival. If he is looking for new ways to make a difference here, this is one. He should direct his DOT commissioner to start and prioritize an environmental impact study, giving Higgins and Kennedy room to do what they’ve been elected to do.

The EIS would offer alternatives that don’t exist today. Right now, the only option is to rebuild the 60-year-old Skyway – a structure that would never be constructed today.

Higgins and Kennedy want to position Buffalo to make a smart decision about the city’s transportation needs, but without the environmental impact study, that can’t happen. It is not about tearing something down, the congressman said, but finding a better way given changes in transportation, innovation and design.

A critical point is that the Buffalo River is no longer an industrial working waterway. So, as Higgins asked, does Buffalo need a bridge with a 110-foot clearance – a height that makes the bridge larger and longer – given the recreational nature of the Buffalo River? The answer is clearly, no.

Environmental studies are underway in Syracuse and Rochester, cities that are seeking what Buffalo wants – to remove unnecessary elevated sections of highway. It’s all about finding the most efficient, least intrusive way to move people from Point A to Point B.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing the Skyway is simply a fact of life, impossible to change. Higgins understands that thinking but, as he said, that is not what he does. Thankfully, he sees his job as a congressman helping people see they can push the limits of possibility at the waterfront, Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and downtown Buffalo. He’s right. There’s nothing to be afraid of here.

Let’s consider the best possible transportation network while also looking at the additional benefit of opening up waterfront land that isn’t accessible because of the unnecessary monstrosity on top of it. The DOT must play its part.

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