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Cuomo hits reset on the 198, pushing planning in new direction

A regional transportation organization is taking the reins to redesign the Scajaquada Expressway, raising the hopes of advocacy groups long frustrated by the failure to convert it into a slower and calmer parkway that's a better fit with Delaware Park and the community and reconnects nearby neighborhoods.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday turned to the Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council to guide the planning process for the 2.2 miles of Route 198 between Parkside Avenue and Grant Street. The council — comprising officials from municipal and state agencies — will establish a local steering committee to work with experts and community groups.

"It was what we had been hoping for," said Brian Dold, chairman of the Scajaquada Corridor Coalition.

"We think the transit group is the perfect transportation entity to really pull this together," said Dold, who also directs planning and advocacy for the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy. "They have the expertise in transportation planning, planning and community engagement to really get us to the solution we have been hoping for."

The regional transportation council's members include officials from the cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls; Erie and Niagara counties; the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority; the New York State Department of Transportation; and the New York State Thruway Authority.

State DOT Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez said in a statement the new planning process would engage the public to "define the future of the area and the optimal transportation system for it."

"We look forward to working with the community on a transformational vision, identifying the multimodal transportation access and mobility solutions that can best support it now and into the future," Dominguez said.

The state DOT guided the on-again, off-again process since the early 2000s. It picked up steam after a car drove into Delaware Park from Route 198 in May 2015, killing a child. Cuomo immediately lowered the speed limit to 30 mph and instructed the DOT to complete a plan the community could support.

A draft plan for the $101 million project, however, proved to be unpopular and was withdrawn in January 2018. Two-thirds of the public comments received by the DOT opposed it. That left the process in  limbo until the governor's decision to change course.

"I'm extremely confident this process will yield a plan that will be embraced by the community," said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, who has pushed for a Scajaquada Corridor that is slower and accessible to more than just vehicles.

"I give the administration tremendous credit for hitting the reset button," Ryan said.

Hal Morse, the transportation planning organization's executive director, said work has already started. There is no timetable yet for a plan, Morse said, but he noted the council won't be starting from scratch since extensive traffic and environmental studies have been completed.

The council will look at the region's long-term transportation needs and how the Scajaquada fits in, he said.

The controversial 30 mph speed limit is not something that will be looked at alone, Morse said, but added, "We're not trying to presuppose any options."

Mark Kubiniec, past president of the Grant Amherst Business Association, is also glad to see the regional transportation council at the helm.

"They are a data-driven organization and seem to be an objective, local, reasonable group," Kubiniec said. "I've always been very impressed by them."

The DOT took a back seat in recent highway removal projects in Niagara Falls, Rochester and Syracuse.

Fresh thinking could now expand the options for what to do with Route 198, said Justin Booth, the Scajaquada Corridor Coalition's vice chairman.

Michael DeLuca, a Central Park resident who has worked on the Scajaquada Corridor issue for years, expressed optimism about the sudden change in direction and confidence in the regional transportation council that will lead it.

"For the longest time we have been banging our heads against the wall," DeLuca said.

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