Slowing traffic on the 198 was a "knee-jerk reaction" to a tragedy and the state should raise the speed limit back to the original 50 mph, former Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra says.
And he has an ally in Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, who said he supports raising the speed limit on the sections of the Scajaquada Expressway outside Delaware Park.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered the speed limit lowered to 30 mph following the May 2015 death of a 3-year-old boy when a car went off the the expressway, across the median and into Delaware Park.
Now, Giambra, known for pursuing an ambitious regionalism agenda during his eight years as county executive, has started a Change.org petition asking the state Department of Transportation to restore the speed limit on the 198 until the DOT follows through on its now-delayed plan to convert the thoroughfare to an at-grade boulevard.
"It's not just me. Everybody that you talk to in town believes it was a knee-jerk reaction to a very unfortunate situation that was probably a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence," Giambra said in an interview.
Giambra, who has worked as a lobbyist and conducted an unsuccessful run for governor since leaving office, said he believed he'd have more success persuading officials of the need for the change if he could show it has public backing. The petition had 4,500 signatures as of late Friday morning.
"Just me talking to a state legislator or a state DOT person will not have the same effect as thousands of people signing a petition," Giambra said.
People here and in Albany for decades have discussed whether to replace the 198 with a parkway of some kind. The Scajaquada splits Delaware Park in two as it runs between the I-190 and the 33.
Interest in remaking the Scajaquada grew after Maksym Sugorovskiy was killed and his 5-year-old sister, Stephanie, was seriously injured when a car veered off the expressway and struck the children and their mother on Delaware Park’s Ring Road four years ago.
At Cuomo's direction, the DOT lowered the speed limit from 50 mph to 30 mph and installed traffic-calming measures such as guide rails along the section within Delaware Park and stop signs in place of the merge signs at ramps on the expressway.
But a broader, $101 million plan to transform the 2.2-mile section of the Scajaquada between Parkside Avenue and Grant Street into a boulevard had foundered by January 2018 in the face of opposition from the public and groups such as the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy and the Scajaquada Corridor Coalition.
Giambra says in his petition that the funding previously set aside for the project was sent elsewhere within the state budget.
DOT spokesman Glenn Bain in response to a request for comment did not directly address calls to raise the speed limit.
The DOT "remains willing to move forward on a project that would enhance the experience of all users along the Scajaquada Expressway corridor, while preserving the historical character of the community," Bain wrote in an email. "However, the more expansive options favored by some community members requires the DOT to consider alternate approaches to advance the project, which we are continuing to explore. The NYSDOT remains committed and looks forward to a collaborative effort to transform the Scajaquada.”
Brown on Friday told The Buffalo News that the city has heard from numerous residents who want the speed limit on the expressway returned to 50 mph. He said they include people who live in Parkside and North Buffalo and complain about additional traffic in their neighborhoods from "frustrated" drivers who now avoid the 198.
The mayor said he backs raising the speed limit to 50 mph between the 33 and Parkside and between, roughly, Elmwood Avenue and the 190.
"The city has expressed several times its support for raising the speed limit back to 50, with the exception of the limits of Delaware Park," Brown said. He added he believed Buffalo police would be able to enforce the varying speed limits on the roadway if the DOT takes this step.
State Sen. Tim Kennedy, the Buffalo Democrat who leads the Senate Transportation Committee, in an email Friday did not take a position on the speed limit.
"The voices of the community deserve to be heard," Kennedy wrote. The DOT "has said it remains committed to moving forward on a project that enhances the experience of all users of the Scajaquada Expressway corridor, and as with any improvements, I expect them to incorporate resident feedback and prioritize safety in any changes implemented down the road."
Giambra said he supported the installation of the guide rails and other safety measures near the accident site, but the 30 mph limit is impossible to enforce.
And he said, unless and until the state overhauls the 198, people should be able to drive at expressway speeds on the roadway and he's willing to make the public case for the change.
"I've decided somebody has to take the bull by the horns," he said.