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On 198 plan, the clock is winding down

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

With the public comment period nearing deadline, community activists are galvanizing opposition to the DOT's plan for the 198.

Standing at the podium of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Stephanie Crockatt posed a simple question to the room.

How many members of the audience, she asked, would like to see major changes to Route 198 through Delaware Park?

Practically everybody in the building raised their hands.

Crockatt, the executive director of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, probably wasn't surprised by that response as she opened another "Save Delaware Park" forum at Buffalo State College. For at least two decades, a large contingent of neighbors in the Delaware Park area have pleaded relentlessly for a more people-friendly Scajaquada corridor. They consider the original construction of the expressway — and subsequent destruction of Frederick Law Olmsted's beautiful park — to be a colossal mistake, and they want it fixed. They want the park reconnected.

As you're likely aware, the New York State Department of Transportation unveiled a new $100 million plan this fall to overhaul the 198. It would add biking and walking lanes, raise the medians and add seven traffic signal intersections to reduce the flow of cars, all part of a proposal to downgrade the 198 from an expressway to a boulevard.

The DOT is accepting public comment on the plan's Final Environmental Impact Statement through Dec. 18 — just five days from now.

After that public comment period, the state will confer with the Federal Highway Administration and could move forward with the project. That is a scary proposition for groups like the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, who've long argued that the DOT's plan does not adequately address their concerns.

So at an event at Burchfield Penney on Wednesday night, the group hosted an outside engineering expert named Ian Lockwood, who has experience working on transportation plans similar to the 198. With about 100 people in the audience, the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy hoped his message would resonate with the crowd and prompt them to submit more public comments to the DOT.

Director of Planning and Advocacy Brian Dold said it's important the state receive as much feedback as possible.

"I think it's good to bring in someone who can validate these ideas that we think reconnect our parks," Dold said. "We can reconnect our communities, and don't always have to defer to traffic projections and traffic models."

Dold said the DOT's plan is too narrow in its scope, considering it only really addresses the area between Grant Street and Parkside.

And that's not the only common complaint.

Activists and neighbors have said the DOT's plan still doesn't accommodate bikers and pedestrians. For example, the plan won't eliminate vehicle traffic from that stone connector bridge over Delaware Avenue (the DOT has said on the record — including in an interview with the New York Times — that it can't replace that bridge with an intersection because it would overwhelm traffic patterns).

In general, these neighborhood activists have said the plan simply does not do what they've always wanted: Reconnect the park to correct a past mistake for future generations.

"We think the DOT has kind of laid out their plan and said, 'take it or leave it.' And we think this is a political decision," Dold said. "We need our elected leaders to stand up with the community, to call DOT back to the table."

Assemblyman Sean Ryan (D-Buffalo) spoke at the podium on Wednesday night, calling for a rejection of the DOT plan and essentially telling the agency to go back to the drawing board.

DOT spokesperson Susan Surdej, responding to a separate but related 2 On Your Side story about tree impact, noted that "the Scajaquada Corridor project is the result of many years of hard work that included an extensive public outreach process to create a roadway that considers all users, enhances safety, and complements the historic character of the Delaware Park."

But Dold said he hopes DOT and the Federal Highway Administration come to the realization that there is no consensus from the community. Perhaps then they could rework the plan, Dold said.

Danielle Huber, who lives near Parkside and attended the event on Wednesday, said it all really comes down to that basic idea that this park is for the people.

Not the cars.

"I believe in walk-ability," she said. "I believe in bringing the community back into our neighborhoods, and preventing any further destruction of our neighborhoods."

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