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Southtowners: How will I get to Buffalo without the Skyway?

There are the Skyway enthusiasts – the ones who love the views and the access.

There are the show me folks – the ones willing to accept the road's removal, if it doesn't affect their commute.

And then there are the ones just waiting for something – anything – to be done with the elevated roadway over the Buffalo River that is old enough to collect Social Security.

They've all been talking since the contest to come up with a new Skyway corridor picked the winning design earlier this month. The City of Lights entry would take down part of the Skyway, leaving a section of the high-level bridge to be turned into a "Sky Park."

And that left Southtowns residents wondering how they would get into Buffalo or Tonawanda without the road they have been driving on – weather permitting – since the 1950s. More than 42,000 cars use the road each day, and many of those commuters are skeptical of the claim by a design firm that using other routes would add just five minutes to the commute time.

But a champion of removing the Skyway says not to worry, changes can be made to existing roads to improve commuting to Buffalo.

"My goal is to improve the commuter experience for everybody who currently uses Route 5 and the Skyway," said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who has talked about removing the roadway for years.

[Related: Skyway plan's impact on drive time? 'About 5 minutes']

And Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who created the contest, said he knows the commute is important.

"We're all about accessibility. And you want people to be able to get into the city and out of the city as fast as possible, right? That's good for the city. That's good for everyone," Cuomo told The Buffalo News editorial board.

But some southtowners need to be convinced.

"I commuted over the Skyway for the better part of 40 years," said Paul Gaughan of Hamburg.

Gaughan, a Hamburg village trustee who retired in May as Erie County commissioner of jurors, said he is a fan of Higgins. But, Gaughan said, "I have to see what the alternative is before I’m really for it. The Skyway is a really easy way to get in."

Thomas Donaldson of Hamburg uses the Route 5 complex every day on his way to work. He's not a fan of demolishing the Skyway.

"I think it would be a big mistake to tear it down. I think it would be more of a pain than people think it would be," Donaldson said.

The Skyway closes several times a year for bad weather, blowing snow or accidents. New York State just completed a two-year, $33 million rehab of the bridge, which had the road closed in one direction, depending on the time of day.

A Buffalo police vehicle blocks the entrance to the Skyway on a snowy day. (News file photo)

There were problems commuting during the construction, Donaldson said.

"Can you imagine if it wasn't there?" he said. "Depending on what they do to replace it, it's going to add a lot of time, especially at rush hours."

He said the options are taking city streets to link up to I-190 in Buffalo, "or take the 90, which is toll money, and that’s a longer commute."

John Henrich of Eden remembers driving into Buffalo over Ohio Street before the Skyway opened, and getting held up at the lift bridge when a ship went through.

"It was almost like a miracle when the Skyway opened. No longer did we have to go down Ohio Street," he said. "There is no more magnificent view of coming into the City of Buffalo, and there is no more magnificent view going out of the city."

Tom Crusan of Evans said he has wondered and worried about the safety on the Skyway with snow and wind since it was built.

"It's always made me wonder why we put this up high," he said. "How are we going to solve the issue of high maintenance, high volume of traffic with a feasible alternative for traffic?"

He's hoping for a quick decision to accommodate boat traffic on the Buffalo River with commuter access to Buffalo, and he advocates keeping roads at grade level.

"I really hope we can do this," he said, adding, "I'm not overly optimistic."

But he hasn't talked to Higgins, the congressman who has been looking at ways to do this for years. If he had, he would know that removing the Skyway is one part of a much larger plan.

First, Higgins said the proposed Tifft Street arterial connecting to Route I-190 will take some of the traffic.

Next, cashless tolls on the Thruway will eliminate the need for toll barriers, and upgrading or adding interchanges will also save time, he said. And traffic signals on city streets should be synchronized with the latest technology. He said reintroducing motorists to the main thoroughfares with modernized signals can improve commute times by 25%.

Higgins said the Thruway does not need to be widened, and there is no need for a lift bridge at the foot of Michigan Avenue. Without those, the estimated cost is more in the $300 million to $400 million range, not $600 million, he said. The federal government is expected to foot 80% of the bill, with the state picking up the rest. He also said the entire Skyway should come down.

"What we have to do is come up with a way to vastly improve and better utilize what we have for the goal of improving the commuting experience," Higgins said. "We can do that without adding to the commute time."

Those options would be developed during the study of the impacts on the environment.

"This is where the creative meets practicality," he said.

Tom Duffy of Lakeview said he always thought a tunnel would be a good way to move traffic without the problem of closing due to weather. Failing that, if the Skyway is gone, the existing roads should handle the traffic.

"With those routes and South Park, and the enhancements they're going to make to the routes, I believe people will find a way to get into the city in a timely manner," he said. "I think people will adjust."

"The project is certainly visionary in scope and holds the promise of an ever greater rebirth of our city," said Hamburg town Highway Superintendent Ted Casey. "However, the traffic impacts must be fully considered and addressed to ensure the continued safe and efficient safe transportation of traveler if we are to consider this a successful undertaking."

Rep. Higgins wants to tear down the Skyway. Here's why I'm conflicted.

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