It’s highway or the highway, was the recent message from Governor Cuomo to Buffalo on the 198 redo, delivered this month by surrogates such as former Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT), who later in the month moved on to head the Thruway Authority. Like a 1950s dad telling us that if we don’t like the meal our mother put on the table we can go to bed hungry, he told the Buffalo News that if the community opposes their “final” plan the DOT will take millions of dollars of federal funding and spend it elsewhere.
Driscoll and the Governor’s Western New York point person Sam Hoyt also played a game of “Father Knows Best” at the Buffalo News editorial board, which apparently was given exclusive information prior to the public meeting in exchange for an agreement to embargo it until the 6 PM public meeting was underway. That is precisely when the News published it. Apparently the agreement included the stipulation that the News not contact stakeholders for their reaction – or even to double-check the accuracy of the information – because I heard from stakeholders who were taken entirely aback by what they saw presented at the meeting. Some even read the News article on their phones at the meeting. I’ve heard accounts from the meeting of stakeholders shaking their heads in surprise at inaccuracies in the presentation. The Olmsted Conservancy has rebutted some of those on their web site.
For comparison, Information from the DOT’s presentation is here (scroll down to the section for “August 8, 2017”).
To emphasize: Driscoll and Hoyt told the editorial board all the reasons why the recent compromise proposal (discussed by Queenseyes and myself here and here) from the Scajaquada Cultural Coalition won’t work – without ever discussing it with them.
In other words, the Governor’s people responded to an attempt at reaching a consensus compromise by brushing it off the table. Clearly, we’re being railroaded.
Further evidence of this is found in the mysterious circumstances of the public meeting. People only knew because someone spotted a notice in the Buffalo News the week before. I’ve been to many of DOT’s public meetings about the Scajaquada, and signed in with my email address, yet got no notice of this meeting. And just a week before, when the Buffalo News interviewed Sam Hoyt about the compromise proposal, he said nothing about a pending public meeting. DOT held the meeting in the middle of summer vacation season, and then gave the community only two weeks to submit written comments. Clearly, either the meeting was very hastily planned, or they didn’t want to tip their hand.
And then there was the misinformation. The office of an elected official I contacted had been told by the DOT that the meeting wasn’t about presenting anything final, but was just an update. Based on that, and because I had a previous commitment for that night, I didn’t attend. Others may have made the same choice. Yet despite their assurances to the contrary, the meeting was indeed about presenting something final. Clearly, they’re not being upfront with the community and its leaders.
And still, the DOT has declined to post online the comments received during and after their January public meeting.
In many ways, the situation is taking on the characteristics of the Outer Harbor battle of three years ago. And not just because some of the same people, who work at the behest of the Governor, are involved. In that case as well, public input was ignored. In that case, as well, the agency involved misled the public about their intentions to create a “final” plan. In that case, only last-minute intervention by the mayor and county executive kept ECHDC from adopting a plan the community didn’t want as their “preferred option.” And in the end, it took Empire State Development, parent of ECHDC, and opposition from local officials, to scuttle ECHDC’s development-heavy Outer Harbor plan.
Three years later the question is, who will step up to keep another state agency, and the people working for a Governor who openly admires Robert Moses, from ramrodding this highway-heavy plan through the Scajaquada corridor and Delaware Park?
Thankfully, the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy and the Scajaquada Corridor Coalition say they are not giving up in their attempts to work out a better plan. As mentioned above, they have posted a rebuttal to the DOT online.
But perhaps the best thing I saw or heard from the Coalition in response was a WBEN interview with Design Chair Lou Haremski the morning after the public meeting. It has some good things about both the status of the process, and the status of planning for the corridor. I thought it was so good, I took the time to make a transcript. Let’s wrap up with that.
WBEN’s Susan Rose: The State DOT unveiled their “final design” for the 198 last night, which will soon be known as “Scajaquada Boulevard.” Louis Haremski is with the Western Scajaquada Coalition, who was at the meeting last night. Louis, what did you hear last night that you liked or didn’t like?
Louis Haremski: Honestly, there wasn’t much that I did like. It was a very disappointing meeting. It’s the same design that they’ve been showing us for the last several years, that takes very little into account from the public meetings. It absolutely shows no innovation. One of the things that we’ve pressed is for some urban planning study to be done in conjunction with this. It’s our feeling that it isn’t just a matter of moving traffic. But that is DOT’s sole interest in this process.
One of the most disappointing things from last night’s meeting. It came from a quote Matt Driscoll, the Commissioner of the Department of Transportation, made to the Buffalo News. He said, “we can’t undo what happened 70 years ago.” Now this is the man who, as mayor of Syracuse, led the fight to move the I-81 from the center of Syracuse. Now that he’s the DOT commissioner, it seems that there really isn’t much concern for what the local citizens want – they’re going to push their own project.
WBEN’s Brian Mazurowski: Doesn’t there have to be some consideration given to a time frame here? There have been numerous public meetings. At some point, construction has to get underway and the work actually has to be done.
Haremski: It makes no sense to push forward if it’s not the right design. We would love to see something happen quickly, but to sacrifice quality for quickness? This is a generational decision that’s being made. This won’t change for another 50 years. It’s not a project where two years from now, someone says, “we could have done this better, let’s spend another $110 Million.” You know, this is it. Nothing else will change in this corridor – while I’m alive.
Rose: What is the biggest mistake do you think that they’re making here?
Haremski: The biggest mistake is they are using the term, “level of service.” Which means counting cars. It’s purely traffic oriented. If you look back at the expressway, it never should have been built back in the 1950s. If it were to be proposed now it would would never get approval – it would never make it through common council, it would never make it through EPA standards. There are so many ways that this project is just wrong. When they did design it, they say they are trying to correct design flaws in the roadway, but they are only taking into account the middle 2.2 miles. They have chosen to not consider the far end, from Grant Street to the 190. They have also chosen to not consider the east end, from Parkside to the 33.
The problem is what we call the spaghetti interchange with the 190. It could never pass design consideration now – it’s horrible. We’ve had trucks go over the guardrail. From a design standpoint it’s horrible. But they won’t touch it, because they can’t design anything better. So our proposal is to just remove it – disconnect it from the 190. Now that’s a very aggressive proposal. But it would also free up an incredible amount of land for development. The Coalition feels there are, oh, about 92 acres along Tonawanda Street in the end that would be open to development.
Riverkeeper would love to have the ability to clean up the creek. What we see as a drainage ditch right now was once a navigable harbor a long time ago, and they want to take it back to that. But the DOT just refuses to consider things at that end. And that’s why they truncated their proposal to not even think about what they would do at the western end.
Rose: So, would you then just end it at Grant Street?
Haremski: Yes. There would be a street. There would be a street that would get reconstructed, that would be at grade. We commissioned an urban planning study to be done. People who think about not just traffic, but what you could do with the land. Our corollary here is twenty years ago who would have thought you’d see a traffic jam on the Buffalo River with kayaks and paddle boats and things like that? Well, Scajaquada Creek is basically riverfront property – everything that touches it is. And it could be the North Buffalo aquatic waterway. But DOT stands in the way. The pylons for the elevated section of the 198 actually sit in the creek. Something the EPA would never allow to happen now.
Mazurowski: Where do you go from here? The DOT says this is it, this is their final plan.
Haremski: Well, there are other options open. The traditional one is to stop the project with a lawsuit. They’re expensive. I think the DOT recognizes that that’s there. But there are so many parts that they have not taken into account. And I don’t care if they give you a list of meetings that they’ve held over twelve years. They do it because the Federal Highway Administration requires it – they require it for an Environmental Impact Statement. But the problem is, no matter how many meetings you hold, if you don’t listen to people, they’re worthless.
Rose: Louis, we’re glad you could join us this morning. Thank you for sharing your insight on what you’re hoping for. Louis Haremski is a member of the Western Scajaquada Coalition.