Freeway under fire

Clear plan for future must precede demolition of Buffalo skyway

On February 20, 2014

An iconic Buffalo landmark has come under criticism from an outside group, though it's one that fails to appreciate the rich and complex history of this city.

Last week, a Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) report titled "10 Freeways Without a Future" included the Buffalo skyway as a highway in need of demolition.

The report referred to the freeway as an eyesore that "mars public views" of the waterfront, citing that "41,500 vehicles per day" cross the corridor, before going on to call it "blighted" and "obsolete."

What is missing is a clear, vetted proposal for what would replace the skyway, though a Department of Transportation (DOT) review of the bridge's future is underway.

The CNU report made no mention of many benefits the skyway has offered, particularly for the drivers of those 41,000-plus vehicles. Following a common pattern, the report proposes overly optimistic plans without any real appreciation for the advantages the skyway provides citizens today.

The skyway offers far faster connection between the inner harbor downtown and Route 5 than traversing downtown streets. In addition to practical considerations, the structure, with its sweeping curves and mammoth size, has been an icon of the cityscape since its completion in 1956.

The experience of the skyway itself is symbolic of Buffalo - the view of Lake Erie while navigating awkward exits, the smell of cereal from General Mills. It is unique to the city.

The CNU report advocated demolition of the freeway, which DOT estimates would cost approximately $20-25 million, and construction of a boulevard to allow walkability, development and closer connection with the waterfront.

Though the plan itself sounds wonderful, and much better than the $50 million the report cites it would cost just to maintain the skyway over the next two decades, its feasibility must be interrogated.

This city has had a sordid past with waterfront development that should make us wary of such suggestions by an outside group. Just the words "Bass Pro," harkening to the failed development project in 2011, remind citizens of how controversial, and potentially unsuccessful, urban development can be.

Beyond this, the report paints the skyway as a blighted straw man, favoring depiction of it as something without benefit. The freeway has, and continues to have, value to the city and inhabitants that must be considered when looking at alternatives.

The CNU report is not the first call to tear down the controversial freeway. Local politicians, particularly State Congressman Brian Higgins, have attacked the skyway in similar veins to the CNU.

The freeway has become an easy target for politicians promoting notions of development with few substantive plans, using statements like CNU's report to demonize the structure, without any clear future in mind - save starry-eyed promises.

Before any plans for demolition are taken seriously, a robust report on the future of our waterfront, one that takes into consideration how traffic can be rerouted and the practicality and costs of its prescriptions, is necessary.

The skyway is far from perfect, but tearing it down without a practical end-goal would be far worse than an obstructed view of our waterfront.



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