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Amherst, Tonawanda on DOT's $2M Niagara Falls Blvd. report: It's a start

The state Department of Transportation will include many of the findings from its recently completed study of Niagara Falls Boulevard in a $2 million project to boost safety along the busy roadway that's set to start next year.

But officials of the two towns that border the boulevard are concerned that the changes will not be enough.

The DOT on Monday released the results of its comprehensive study of a 6.5-mile stretch of Niagara Falls Boulevard in the towns of Amherst and Tonawanda, from Tonawanda Creek Road south to Kenmore Avenue.

The route, particularly the section north of the Interstate 290 ramps, was built to handle high traffic volumes and officials from the two towns have raised safety concerns following the deaths of six pedestrians over the last six years.

The short-term recommendations include adding accessible pedestrian signals and push-button controls, more visible crosswalks, midstreet pedestrian islands and – perhaps most significantly – lowering the speed limit in the northern portion of the roadway.

The DOT said some of the study's recommendations, such as putting the boulevard on a road diet, require further analysis and discussion.

“Safety is our top priority and, working with the community and our partner agencies, we are utilizing the three E’s of engineering, education and enforcement to enhance safety for everyone who travels this important corridor,” Frank Cirillo, the DOT's Buffalo-area regional director, said in a statement.

Amherst and Tonawanda elected officials, who were not given advance notice of the report's release on Monday, generally welcomed its findings. They said the safety improvements the DOT began along the boulevard in 2018, supplemented by the project that will start in 2020, are good first steps but much more needs to be done.

"We've got a long way to go," Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa said.

Niagara Falls Boulevard is 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.

Six people were fatally injured on the boulevard since 2013, most recently Jennifer L. Duffin, 41, who was killed in May 2018. At least another 11 injury crashes were reported.

Duffin's family has sued the two towns and the state over her death, which also spurred Amherst and Tonawanda to conduct their own safety audit of a primarily commercial, 2.4-mile stretch of the boulevard, from Ridge Lea Road north to East Robinson Road.

Up to 53,000 vehicles travel that section every day and the speed limit is 45 mph for most of it.

The towns' central conclusion was the boulevard's design created dangerous conditions for people walking along or trying to cross the road.

Their 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 that they wish to cross.

The towns called for a range of actions, including everything from reducing the number of curb cuts on some properties to installing dozens of new street lights on both sides of the boulevard, a project set to start later this year.

The DOT didn't help to produce that audit, but last summer it began its own immediate safety improvements, work that included restriping crosswalks with markings that are more visible to motorists.

The state said engineering work on the next phase of the improvements will be performed this year, with construction starting next year. The $2 million project could include relocating some bus stops, adjusting traffic signal timing and restricting right turns on red, among other suggestions from the study.

The work is part of a joint effort involving the DOT, the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee and the state Department of Health.

They're working to make the road safer for pedestrians and, also, leading a campaign to encourage pedestrians to be careful when they do use the boulevard.

Over two weeks in June along the boulevard, Town of Tonawanda police issued 30 warnings to pedestrians for not crossing with the pedestrian control signal and 27 warnings for crossing somewhere other than crosswalks. They gave out four warnings to drivers for not yielding the right of way to pedestrians.

"Pedestrians and motorists have to pay more attention," Tonawanda Supervisor Joseph Emminger said.

The report recommends lowering the speed limit in the northern section of the thoroughfare from 45 mph to 40 mph, calling it a change that can take place in the short term.

What about more complicated and costlier changes, such as shrinking the number of driving lanes? The DOT leaves those for further discussion.

"I think it's got to have more dialogue," Emminger said. "This is a start."

On Main Street in Williamsville, which received a DOT-led reconstruction last year, village residents and officials pushed for years for changes to make the route more walkable. The same engagement needs to come from the neighborhoods along both sides of the boulevard, Kulpa said.

"It's going to take people from Green Acres and Willow Ridge to say, 'Hey, this isn't good enough for us,' " he said.

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

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