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'Skyway is coming down': Higgins touts plan that costs less, boosts East Side

Rep. Brian Higgins has a plan to ease traffic without the Skyway, and he thinks it can be done at a fraction of the cost of what others say.

Higgins' plan – an admitted work in progress – relies on synchronized traffic signals along underused East Side thoroughfares and other traffic changes. The improvements could make for faster commute times between the Southtowns and downtown Buffalo than using the Skyway, he said.

The congressman, in a meeting with The Buffalo News Editorial Board, also predicted the Skyway will be demolished, despite a winning contest entry that called for part of the structure to remain for non-vehicular use.

"Look, the Skyway is coming down," Higgins said. "Half of it is not going to stay up, or portions of it. It's going to go.

"With all due respect to the sentimental value associated with it, it's steel and concrete. And it's unsafe," Higgins said.

The structure is considered functionally obsolete and fracture critical, and could not be built today under state and federal safety standards, Higgins noted.

Removing the Skyway, Higgins said, would also be a catalyst for renewal on the East Side and the creation of a downtown neighborhood between St. Joseph Cathedral and WNED-TV Studios, and the re-installation of Terrace Park, Buffalo's first public park. Parkland and habitat improvement would also be possible on the Outer Harbor by removing the Skyway, he said.

But before that can happen, he said, it will be necessary to demonstrate that commute times aren't prolonged for those who make up the more than 42,000 trips a day on the Skyway. Most of the commuters come from Hamburg, Lackawanna and South Buffalo.

Over 42,000 daily commuters travel on the Skyway. Rep. Brian Higgins wants to see the bridge come down, and is exploring traffic alternatives that rely on using city streets with advanced signal synchronization technology. (John Hickey/News file photo)

"We have to come up with an alternative that allays the concerns of people from the Southtowns who are saying, 'OK, the Skyway is gone, where am I going to go?' Well, here's the plan," Higgins said. "We're going to improve your commuter experience. It's not easy but it's very doable."

To that end, Higgins is working on traffic alternatives to submit to the environmental study that the federal government will require when examining the Skyway's removal. He also has begun meeting with two people close to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who also wants the Skyway to come down: John Maggiore, a Buffalo native and senior adviser to the governor, and Howard Zemsky, chairman of Empire State Development Corp.

"The governor has tasked Howard and I to inform the EIS," Higgins said.

Cuomo announced following the conclusion of the Skyway contest on Sept. 17 that he was committing $10 million toward an expedited environmental review process that's expected to take around two years.

The federal government would pick up 80% of the transportation tab, with the state paying the other 20%.

That includes the cost of demolishing the Skyway, which Higgins estimates to be $30 million, almost one-third more than the state Department of Transportation estimate in 2014.

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Absorbing traffic

The key in Higgins' plan to absorb traffic that now enters downtown on the milelong, soaring Skyway is using synchronized traffic signals and other advanced traffic-flow technology on East Side and South Buffalo streets. It would take advantage of the city's radial street grid designed by Joseph Ellicott like spokes on a wheel in 1804.

"You have all these streets coming into Niagara Square from the suburbs – Genesee, Sycamore, Broadway, Clinton, William, Seneca and South Park," Higgins said. "All were built for a population of 300,000 more people than we have today. Why aren't we taking advantage of that by reactivating those streets that have been commercially dead for 50 years? We can do that with this opportunity."

Without stop-and-go traffic, Higgins said, commuters from Cheektowaga and Lancaster could enter downtown on the wide, underused streets, relieving traffic on Interstate 90.

"The East Side commuter routes are important to reduce the amount of congestion on the Thruway," Higgins said. "People from Cheektowaga will view these streets as more attractive routes if there is not a lot of stop-and-go traffic."

Commuters would be able to use Ohio Street, South Park Avenue and Seneca Street to get onto Clinton and William streets, Higgins said.

"We can show this throughout the entire system as an alternative to the Skyway," he said.

The congressman said his own experience has led him to believe the signal changes will work.

"If you drive down those streets, as I have done many, many times testing all of this, you find there's a lot of what I call 'nuisance lighting,' " Higgins said. "The street signaling was put in place 50 years ago, and it's still there. Ellicott laid these streets out to be grand boulevards, and if you drive down them early in the morning, there's no one there."

The Skyway: Finally on the brink of a federally mandated Environmental Impact Statement to determine whether it stays or goes. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Looking to Pittsburgh

Higgins' model is Pittsburgh, which uses an advanced signal synchronization system developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. The technology, which includes real-time data and sensors, has reduced commuter times dramatically on city streets while lowering pollution emissions by 20%, Higgins said.

It would cost $20 million to put the commercially available technology in 450 intersections, he said.

"This will more efficiently and effectively distribute traffic into downtown Buffalo," Higgins said.

Using city streets to move traffic would also allow the Thruway to handle extra traffic from Hamburg without the costly need to widen the highway, he said.

Extending Tifft Street about one mile and turning it into a four-lane road to carry much of the traffic from Route 5 is also part of Higgins' plan, something both the contest winner and a 2006 study by the state Department of Transportation identified.

The new route would travel between Silo City and a berm along Abby Street on to South Park. It would then head northeast along the railroad track and over a new land bridge across the Buffalo River to the intersection at Elk Street and James Coppola Boulevard.

A study by Fisher Associates for the winning entry estimated a majority of the inbound traffic would utilize the Tifft arterial, with about half turning left on South Park Avenue and the balance heading to the Niagara Thruway.

The projected cost to carve out the new route is $40 million, Higgins said.

The plan also calls for new on- and off-ramps at Lake Avenue to encourage commuters from Hamburg and Evans to take the Thruway and a streamlined on-ramp on Milestrip Road to give people from the Southtowns greater access. The projected cost is $25 million.

Another positive development in reducing delays, Higgins said, will be cashless tolls coming to the Hamburg and Lackawanna toll plazas.

One-quarter the cost

The preliminary cost to replace the Skyway and put in place alternatives, Higgins said, is $140 million. That's more than three-quarters less than the $600 million estimate used in the past by the state DOT and cited by Cuomo last month. It's also considerably below the $340 million price tag arrived at by the winning "City of Lights" proposal, which calls for keeping half the Skyway intact.

Higgins said his plan is less expensive because it doesn't call for widening the I-190 or building a lift bridge at Michigan Avenue.

He said the state-of-the-art signaling technology was not anticipated when the state DOT last studied the issue. Nor was it something the design competitors considered, he said.

The cost to remove the Skyway and fund traffic alternatives would be paid for by a federal government increase in its share of transportation dollars to New York State, currently $1.4 billion, Higgins said.

Higgins, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the funds would come from what he predicts to be an eventual $2 trillion infrastructure bill, the largest in the nation's history.

"Any net increase in the federal money going to the State of New York will pay for this project," Higgins said. "That's the governor's commitment, and that's my commitment to him."

Higgins said the influence of State Sen. Tim Kennedy, chairman of the State Senate's transportation committee, and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes would help the project.

"Everything is aligned at this point to do something really dramatic and beneficial," Higgins said.

Reviving the East Side

Helping solve the commuter challenge with a modern signaling system would boost primary East Side streets with paving, striping, landscaping, decorative lighting and other improvements. The cost for this would be $20 million, Higgins said.

The infrastructural improvements would lead to private investment on those streets, he predicted, just as development has followed streetscape improvements along Niagara and Ohio streets.

The project would complement the $50 million infrastructure plan on the East Side announced by the governor in March. It calls for revitalizing the north-south corridors of Bailey, Fillmore, Jefferson and Michigan avenues.

"Reviving these arterials with synchronization advances, and improving their appearance with landscaping and decorative lighting along with the increased street traffic, will be an inducement for developers," Higgins said.

Turning the streets into commuter routes by improving their efficiency, functionality and aesthetics could also be done during the environmental review process, Higgins said.

"We solve that [East Side] problem in and of itself, but it also helps us inform the solution to the [Skyway] problem," he said.

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