Building a boulevard with a 40 mph speed limit – not a 55 mph expressway – appears to be the favorite option among government planners if the Skyway comes down.
Either route would run through South Buffalo, but the option for a boulevard, with limited access, is the only one included in a draft environmental document that the Federal Highway Administration has circulated to state agencies for comments, The Buffalo News has learned.
The draft document, part of an environmental review process, is expected to be ready for public review within months, with a final decision to come at the end of the year, according to the state Department of Transportation.
That would fulfill Gov. Andrew Cuomo's promise to decide the fate of the Skyway in two years, even amid a pandemic.
"I worry that this may be too fast for the Skyway," said Patrick Whalen, director of the Niagara Global Tourism Institute. "But if you look at the speed with which we got the vaccine, I think we ought to be realizing that we can get things done a lot faster than we have been."
The document with the boulevard option calls for at-grade and elevated roads, seven new bridges, and the removal of three bridges along a 2.6-mile stretch from Route 5/Tifft Street to a new on-ramp at Seneca Street.
The route would cross primarily undeveloped land, former brownfields and abandoned railroad rights-of-way.
The plan also includes major changes to the Niagara Thruway, between the Clinton and Elm street exits. They include widening seven bridges and replacing two others, lengthening acceleration and deceleration lanes, and adding auxiliary lanes between selected interchanges.
Improvements to traffic signal synchronization and to intersections on Buffalo's streets, in the vicinity of the Skyway corridor, would also be part of the project.
The cost is put between $475 million to $550 million -- but that would not include removal of the 3.4-mile long Skyway between Tifft and Church streets. The removal would bring the estimated cost to $600 million, according to a Scoping report in August.
"While the environmental process is ongoing, we have no comment on a preferred alternative for the Buffalo Skyway," DOT Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez said in a statement.
As the fast-tracked process moves ahead, long-held concerns and new developments could influence the outcome.
- Rep. Brian Higgins and State Sen. Timothy Kennedy are pushing for an at-grade parkway with accompanying 30- to 35-foot linear park as an alternative.
- A State Supreme Court lawsuit seeks to invalidate the environmental review, claiming the DOT violated the law by eliminating from the outset all concepts that didn't call for the removal of the Skyway.
- Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes and five other Assembly members, in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, "adamantly" disagreed the Skyway's demolition should be a regional transportation priority.
- The Buffalo Museum of Science, which operates Tifft Nature Preserve, has concerns the new road would extend too close to the preserve and bring too much traffic onto Fuhrmann Boulevard.
- An online petition from the Skyway Club garnered 860 signatures calling for the Skyway to remain a vehicular bridge.
Pushing for a parkway
Higgins and Kennedy say they keep in regular contact with the state DOT commissioner and the governor's secretary for transportation, but still have some convincing to do on their parkway and linear park proposal.
"We've got to get it right because it's not right," Higgins said.
"We want whatever is finally approved to be an enhancement to the community rather than a barrier to the community, as opposed to the raised highways that have had a catastrophic effect in generations past," Kennedy said.
Both want to also see a new on-ramp at Lake Avenue to take Southtowns residents to the 90 to connect to the 190, and a Thruway turning lane at Milestrip Road.
An imminent solicitation from the DOT to contractors, with an eye toward developing a list of finalists in June, caught Higgins attention.
"The only thing I can say to the contractors who submit a response, in the clearest terms, is that they better be able to build first-rate parks, parkways and bicycle access to and through the Outer Harbor," Higgins said.
Higgins, who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee, expects to deliver 80% of the project's cost from a federal infrastructure bill likely to pass in the next several months.
Kennedy is in a position to help deliver the state's 20% share of the project from his perch as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
Higgins wants all of the Skyway to come down, after expressing interest last month in Campaign for Greater Buffalo's Cloudwalk plan.
The Cloudwalk proposal calls for converting 80% of the concrete bridge into a pedestrian and bicycle pathway. The part of the Skyway between Church Street and the DL&W train shed would be removed, opening up 12 downtown acres.
The parkway and linear park approach, Higgins said, would cost less than building the elevated roads now planned.
"When you look at grade separation, that is where you really pile on the cost," Higgins said. "We are looking for at-grade parkways, complementing parks, better access from South Buffalo, West Seneca, Lackawanna. This is what people want.
"We are removing elevated sections of expressway in Niagara Falls, in Rochester, in Syracuse, and we are going to do it in Buffalo," he said.
Both say the windfall New York State could receive from a massive infrastructure bill could be enough to pay for the Skyway's removal, cover part of Route 33, also known as the Kensington Expressway, to restore Humboldt Parkway and turn the Route 198, or the Scajaquada Expressway, into an at-grade parkway.
"This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity," Kennedy said.
Prioritizing Route 33
Peoples-Stokes believes addressing the harm done by the Kensington Expressway when it tore into the Martin Luther King and Hamlin Park neighborhoods needs to be Buffalo's No. 1 transportation priority.
"We've been advocating for this for 15 years already – now is our time," Peoples-Stokes said.
She takes a dim view of doing anything with the Skyway.
"The state just spent $29 million redecking the Skyway in 2018 and 2019 and now wants to tear it down two years later?" Peoples-Stokes said. "That's not sound fiscal stewardship in troubling financial times."
A 2012 DOT study estimated it would cost $600 million in 2018 dollars to deck the highway and create green space over a three-quarter-mile portion between East Ferry and Best streets.
Concerns about Tifft
Marisa Wigglesworth, president and CEO of the Buffalo Museum of Science, has raised traffic and road concerns with DOT officials.
"Not being an expert in traffic and traffic flow, it does seem that the current projections will result in increased traffic on Fuhrmann Boulevard, which I think is a serious concern for Tifft," Wigglesworth said.
"Likewise, it is certainly the case that the map would appear to show that a roadway is coming closer to Tifft, but we are waiting to see how the design comes out," she said.
Adding to the concern of traffic adjacent to the preserve is that Tifft has been designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society because it's a northeastern stopover for migratory waterfowl species and raptors.
The new road would also destroy 8 to 9 acres of wetlands, requiring mitigation efforts to replace them.
Rachele Schneekloth began her online petition because she's a fan of the Skyway.
She was also curious to know how many people felt like her.
"It turns out a lot do," she said of the signatures, now 860 strong but continuing to grow.
Those objecting to removing the Skyway cite longer commutes to reach downtown, concerns over future development, environmental injustice, the draining of resources from other projects and, like Schneekloth, sheer appreciation of the concrete behemoth.
"We have this bridge that does this job very well, so there is no reason to take it down to make another road," Schneekloth said.
Raymond Vaughan was among the 15 finalists in Cuomo's "Aim for the Sky" competition, held in 2019 to seek ideas on what to do with the Skyway.
He filed a State Supreme Court lawsuit in Albany, saying the DOT has violated environmental review laws by eliminating all concepts that called for keeping all or part of the Skyway.
The DOT countered that Vaughan has no standing to make such a case.
Any assumption the "Aim for the Sky" finalists chosen by Empire State Development would automatically be considered by the DOT is misguided, the agency said in its court papers.
"The ESD's competition was unrelated to DOT's independent determination to dismantle the Skyway," its brief said.
Mark Sommer covers preservation, development, the waterfront, culture and more. He's also a former arts editor at The News.