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Editorial: Cuomo’s plan for a design competition gets WNY closer to replacing Skyway

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo sounds impatient when talking about replacing Buffalo’s Skyway – and we mean that in a good way. He’s making removal of the aging, unwanted bridge a priority and that’s good news for Buffalo.

The governor was in town Thursday to propose a national design competition for alternatives to the elevated highway. The winner would get a $100,000 top prize, if the State Legislature approves Cuomo’s plan, which he plans to include in the state budget.

That sum is a drop in the bucket compared to what it costs to maintain the 63-year-old highway, which is not aging well. “The Skyway is closed” is a regular refrain in winter weather reports. The road is considered “functionally obsolete” and “structurally deficient” under federal highway standards. It is also categorized as “fracture critical,” which means failure of any one of a number of structural elements would lead to a catastrophic failure.

Rep. Brian Higgins, joined by State Sen. Tim Kennedy, has been leading the charge in trying to get rid of the Skyway. Both are Buffalo Democrats. Good for the governor for taking the lead.

The elevated structure, which opened in October 1955, was designed to let lake freighters pass beneath when the Buffalo River was a major industrial waterway.

“The Skyway really was built at a different time for a different city in a different economy and we should be looking big and thinking big,” Cuomo said. “Let’s stop thinking about studies and pondering and ‘what if.’ ”
The governor hopes that architects, engineers and designers nationwide will submit ideas. The contest will take six months, and the results judged by a panel of experts. It should be a good attention-getter, but turning the results into action will be the real test. Once the state chooses a winning design it will need to summon the will and find the resources to demolish the Skyway and install the alternatve, such as a bridge to the Outer Harbor.

The Skyway’s relation to our city’s waterfront is like an old joke: “My hotel room overlooks the ocean – overlooks it completely.” As Buffalo’s waterfront, after years of stagnation, has been brought back to life, anchored by Canalside, other river attractions and the redevelopment of the Outer Harbor, we can’t afford to have a major traffic artery bypass so many acres that are crucial to the region’s future.

The State Department of Transportation began a review of the structure’s long-term viability in September 2018. Spoiler alert: It’s not viable.

In 2014, the Congress for New Urbanism named the 110-foot-tall, 1.4-mile-long bridge one of the nation’s 10 “Freeways Without Futures.”

“The Skyway bridge would not be approved for construction today,” Higgins said. “It is an unsafe bridge that has outlived its usefulness in the city.”

Higgins has pushed the DOT to speed up its Environmental Impact Statement study to take advantage of potential funding from a $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill he expects Congress to pass this year or next.

Cuomo’s announcement may have taken the DOT by surprise. He said the question of how to pay for the project will be figured out after a winning concept is chosen, and he doesn’t want the competition to last any longer than six months.

“Let’s come up with a new vision for the Skyway and then we will make it happen,” the governor said.

That sounds good to us.

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