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Public Scopes Out Proposals for Outer Harbor Bridge

In the late 1950s, one of the two lift bridges at Michigan Street became inoperable while the other was soon thereafter hit by a freighter, causing it to collapse. These fateful events left the Queen City without a direct route to prime land along Lake Erie. Last night, officials took a step to restoring a link to Buffalo’s Outer Harbor during a public scoping meeting for review and comments on proposed locations for a new bridge.

Plans have come and gone for decades, but recent events–a financing agreement for waterfront development through the New York Power Authority, state funding for a two-year Outer Harbor bridge study, and an application from local leaders for $90 million in federal stimulus dollars through a TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) Discretionary Grant–give new reason for hope.

More than 75 people attended the public scoping meeting at Buffalo Public School 95, Waterfront Elementary. The discussion was one of dozens that federal, state, and local officials have had with the public since the study began earlier this year.

Officials originally proposed four possible sites for bridges: Erie, Main, Michigan, and Ganson Streets. The options expanded to 12 possibilities through public input, including the building of a tunnel at Erie Street, or use of water ferries. Upon further discussion and study, officials have now whittled down the preferred options to two locations: Erie or Main Street. Both are the closest to Buffalo’s downtown core.

Steven Ranalli, senior project manager with the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC), said that if consensus builds for the two options, officials can then move ahead with heavy analysis of the sites next year.

“We want to make sure these choices are right,” he said. “We’re open to considering other alternatives, and need public input to make sure we haven’t missed anything.”

During the meeting, David Colligan, chairman of ECHDC’s Outer Harbor Development Committee, addressed the audience by saying the Outer Harbor represents Buffalo’s greatest economic development opportunity. “To my knowledge, this is the largest undeveloped waterfront parcel within an urban boundary,” he said. “We have a virtual clean slate from which to build, and we are seeking a shared community vision. Our goal is to complete the bridge construction in the next five years.”

The 1.5-mile Outer Harbor corridor includes more than 300 acres of developable land. Current bridge estimates place the cost around $63 million for an Erie Street bridge and $87 million for a Main Street bridge–the latter being more expensive due to a two-bridge structure that would cross Kelly Island.

“The planning is not a new idea,” Ranalli said. “We need to directly and efficiently connect to the land, but a new bridge needs to fit with the environment as well as the needs of the community.”

The draft scoping report is available online, as well as at the Buffalo and Erie County Library downtown, the New York State Department of Transportation (NYS DOT) office at 100 Seneca Street, and the ECHDC office at 95 Perry Street, Suite 500. Written comments must be sent to the ECHDC by 5PM on January 11th. Citizens are asked to monitor the project’s web site for further updates.

In narrowing the choices to two bridge locations, officials considered a variety of factors, including multimodal accessibility, cost, and interference with commercial shipping. Bridge height was an issue raised by New York State Assemblymember Sam Hoyt (D-144), the first to speak during the comment portion of the meeting. He expressed concern that the federally-mandated height clearance (100 feet) and the approach onto the bridge would create “walls,” and favored the Michigan Street location instead.

An attorney representing a Marine Drive apartment complex expressed anger over what he believed to be an exclusion of the complex’s 1,000 residents in the drafting stages of the environmental impact statement. He said he planned to take action with the ECHDC office.

More than 20 people commented in all, most being avid sailors or representatives of boat clubs. Many cautioned the officials to consider what would be on the other side of the bridge, such as businesses, residential areas, or parkland. Some expressed disapproval with the Erie and Main Street options, citing concerns such as traffic congestion, restriction to sailing, noise disturbance for waterfront residents, and a poor aesthetic fit to the existing land. Others expressed optimism and hoped that wherever the bridge will be located, it is constructed soon.

The ECHDC plans to complete a final scoping report next month, and they will follow up with additional public meetings before work on a comprehensive environmental impact statement (EIS).

Partnering agencies for the Buffalo Harbor Bridge Project include the ECHDC, NYS DOT, Federal Highway Administration, City of Buffalo, and consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff.

(Top Image: Steven Ranalli, ECHDC senior project manager, points out areas on an oversized map during a public scoping meeting for a new Buffalo harbor bridge on December 16 at Buffalo Public School 95, Waterfront Elementary.)

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