“Rethinking I-81” – OCL’s Study Blog

Buffalo’s Outer Harbor Expressway

Post #6

Earlier this month Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper and three other groups filed motions in an earlier lawsuit in US District Court in Buffalo to require the New York State Department of Transportation to modify its construction plan for Route 5 between the Outer Harbor and downtown Buffalo.  Riverkeeper and its allies argue that the at-grade boulevard plan will not cost more money in the long run, will improve access to the water, and will free up 77 acres for waterfront use and development, while adding only three minutes to the commute.

Riverkeeper is one of many local groups that have been trying to stop the embanked Route 5 in favor of the boulevard in order to increase public access to Lake Erie and take advantage of the lakefront development potential.  The Congress for the New Urbanism, a national organization promoting highway-to-boulevard alternatives as part of walkable, neighborhood-based development, has also taken an interest in the Buffalo project.  CNU’s John Norquist was in Buffalo last week, reiterating the benefits of the boulevard approach.

According to the DOT website, its “… Buffalo Outer Harbor Project was developed with the participation and cooperation of many community and civic leaders, civic organizations, community members and professional organizations.”  However, the boulevard alternative, which State DOT also concluded to be “feasible” and which  is preferred by many civic leaders and members of the community, was not selected.

The preferred DOT approach and a variation of the DOT boulevard alternative were evaluated by a traffic engineer for the consulting firm Smart Mobility, Inc., who concluded there were substantially greater development opportunities with the multiway boulevard.  The Smart Mobility assessment of the DOT-preferred route found no explanation for the NYSDOT decision to keep the elevated Route 5.

Opponents of the embanked Route 5 point out that it needlessly maintains Route 5 as a noisy, high-speed, limited-access highway for just several thousand feet before it meets at-grade traffic lights anyway.  The elevated Route 5 limits the number of possible access points to the Outer Harbor and opponents say it compromises the potential for economic development on the Lakefront.

In addition, what is at issue is not just the 77 acres and waterfront land in the Outer Harbor area, but also the future of the Skyway Bridge leading to downtown Buffalo.  The reconstruction of the elevated Route 5 would seem to guarantee that the elevated Skyway Bridge will stay elevated when it is time to consider its future, in spite of long-range redevelopment plans that would replace it with a street-level crossing.

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