The decision by Rep. Brian Higgins and State Sen. Tim Kennedy to postpone efforts to tear down the Skyway is disappointing, though not without its consolations.
We remain firmly in the corner of those who want to get rid of this hulking structure that looms over the Buffalo waterfront like Godzilla. However, putting off its destruction gives the region and New York State the time and space to tackle other problems that need to be addressed before a major commuter artery from the Southtowns can be removed.
The same concerns apply to two other major infrastructure projects on the table for Buffalo: Putting a deck over part of the Kensington Expressway to restore a section of Humboldt Parkway, and downgrading or removing the Scajaquada Expressway. Both ideas have their merits, but our regional planners need to abide by the words of Hippocrates: First, do no harm.
Anyone who has driven a vehicle in New York City, Boston, Toronto or any other major metropolitan area knows that, by comparison, Buffalo Niagara does not have traffic problems. There’s no reason to create any by charging ahead with major changes to commuting routes that don’t adequately take motorists’ needs into account.
The Kensington connects downtown to the Northtowns, the Thruway, the airport and other points north and east. The way the expressway was built, tearing apart Humboldt Parkway and isolating much of the East Side, was a historical mistake, but the highway’s presence now is an existential fact.
Decking over part of the Kensington can represent an act of restorative justice, but the cars and trucks still need to get where they are going each day. Accommodating the traffic needs to be part of the plan.
The same goes for the Scajaquada, another part of the region’s connective tissue. Remaking it into a boulevard-like roadway would need to be accomplished without creating traffic jams that turn it from an expressway to a parking lot.
With the Skyway, Higgins and Kennedy are not endorsing the status quo, no matter what the “Save the Skyway” campaigners want to believe. The lawmakers acknowledge the resistance among members of the public who want to keep the structure intact for various reasons, including the fact that the state just spent more than $30 million on Skyway improvements to extend its lifespan another 10 to 15 years.
Waiting to restart the campaign for removal gives the state and Western New York time to address needed improvements that will help to move traffic with or without the Skyway. Those include:
• Thruway improvements and eliminating the tolls at Hamburg.
• A new Louisiana Street bridge crossing the Buffalo River at Interstate 190.
• Creating more efficient stop light patterns to improve the ease of travel through Buffalo streets.
Higgins has touted a system developed in Pittsburgh called Surtrac that uses synchronized signals with an array of sensors, complemented by machine learning, to produce efficient traffic flow. He says it would make Buffalo’s streets much more attractive to commuters, which would spur some new economic development, particularly on Buffalo’s struggling East Side.
In addition to those traffic-friendly plans, but still of benefit to the region, is the proposed creation of a new park and bike path at Tifft Street connecting Buffalo Harbor State Park to South Buffalo.
President Biden is negotiating an infrastructure bill with Congress that would bring millions of dollars to Western New York, enough to tackle the longest of wish lists. It would pay for the improvements Higgins is calling for, along with some versions of the Kensington and Scajaquada projects.
Politics is the art of the possible and taking down the Skyway, as Higgins acknowledges, has become a political lightning rod and, in 2022, he will be running in a newly reconfigured district. The Hamburg Town Board on Monday night approved a resolution opposing its removal, reflecting sentiment in the town.
The day will come when the functionally obsolete Skyway must come down. Until then, there are plenty of traffic and infrastructure projects the region can tackle to move our waterfront and roadways toward reaching their full potential.
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