Author: Scot Fisher
The Skyway is in the news once again, and the question begs itself: why are we talking about this? The desire to demolish a perfectly functional, recently repaved bridge over the Buffalo River is misguided at best. At worst, it is an assault on the community.
The big lie behind this project is the portrayal of the Skyway as an elevated superhighway that divides our city and walls us off from the water. Simply put, it does not. To the contrary, the Skyway Bridge is a safe, functional, elegantly designed Mid-Century structure that allows easy access directly from downtown to the Outer harbor and beyond, and provides a simple and direct way for tens of thousands of people a day to get back and forth across the Buffalo River every day.
Interstate 190 is the true barrier to the water in Buffalo. A sea of concrete pylons from Michigan Ave. to the Niagara Street exit, and then on for many more miles in both directions, that highway serves as a virtual wall against the Buffalo River. So unlike the Skyway, which is high enough in the air above the Inner Harbor that concerts can be held underneath it. The Skyway cuts off no neighborhood, it impedes no view, it stifles no development. With upwards of 30 million dollars having just been spent resurfacing it, the bridge is in good shape for another 25 years.
The Pandemic has forced all of us to reassess how we function as a society – how we work, how we travel, frankly – how we live. And more importantly, we are in the midst of a global climate catastrophe. and demolition and construction are major drivers of climate change – if we are to demolish structures and build projects, and we can only afford to do those that have major healing benefits. We cannot afford vanity projects. Spending upwards of a billion dollars to tear down a bridge to create…what? This rises to the top of the “vanity project” category. We need to let our elected representatives know that they too need to reassess how we use our limited resources, and ensure that we are prioritizing the right projects for the right reasons
If we are, as community, willing and able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation infrastructure projects, where SHOULD the money go? In making that decision, one of the most important lenses we need to look through is one of equity. As resources become available, we have a moral obligation to ensure that they are applied FIRST to the places with the most need. Healing past mistakes is important, it is just being mis-applied to the Skyway, and should be focused directly and wholly on the issues that directly impact healing our city:
- Humboldt – Restore Our Community Coalition (ROCC) is a community driven advocacy group that has been working tirelessly for decades to try and restore Olmsted’s vision the Humboldt Parkway, and undue the racial injustice and physical destruction caused by the Kensington Expressway (Route 33). The Kensington Expressway has a major health and human wellness impact on a residential neighborhood divided for generations by a canyon highway, with high asthma and other air pollution related diseases endemic in a predominantly African American neighborhood. This must be our first priority, and the focus of our current resources – time, energy, intellectual, and financial – as an entire community.
- Scajaquada – The Scajaquada Corridor Coalition likewise has been working for years to undue the damage caused by the 198 Expressway, and to improve the safety, access to parkland, water quality, neighborhood connectivity and bicycle and pedestrian access to and through Delaware Park and the Black Rock neighborhood.
- Streetcars – A full 30% of Buffalo’s citizens do not own a private vehicle, and enhanced public transportation is critical to ensure that people can access jobs, schools and medical care. Thankfully, our local Assembly Delegation has recently written to Secretary of Education Pete Buttigieg advocating investment in a clean, reliable Streetcar system of networked public transportation to mitigate the polluting and social costs of single occupancy vehicle reliance in our region.
Public and media discussions recently have focused mainly on the Skyway’s fate. But, the real heart of the DOT’s most recent proposal is the building an expensive new 4-lane, 3.4 mile highway with multiple new bridges. This new highway will bring traffic and pollution to residential neighborhoods. The proposed new highway will also be located immediately adjacent to Tifft Nature Preserve. Construction of the new highway will impact 8 to 10 acres of wetland and at least 16 rare, threatened, or endangered species. In addition to these direct impacts of the new proposed highway, demolition and disposal of a big concrete bridge is a highly polluting process, as is extracting, shipping, and using raw materials to build a new highway and two new bridges.
Demolishing a fully functional, recently repaired bridge and building a new highway and multiple new bridges is wasteful of public dollars. The State’s current Scoping Plan estimates the cost at $600 million. That is likely a gross underestimation: the State’s Plausibility Review in 2014 estimated the total cost of removing the Skyway and doing all the traffic mitigation necessary at between $1.26 billion and $1.38 billion. What return will we get on our investment? According to the Plausibility Review, “The viability and value of economic development enabled by removal of the Skyway is considered to be relatively minor and inconsequential to the local economy.”
So somewhere between $600 million and $1.38 billion is the cost to make it more difficult to cross the Buffalo River to and from downtown, bring air pollution closer to a South Buffalo neighborhood, harm a nature preserve and destroy a beautiful and functional bridge.
Simply put, the Skyway discussion is a solution in search of a problem. A bridge from one side of a river (in addition to a railroad line and a 6 lane freeway) to the other side has been somehow portrayed as an impediment to access. Any close inspection of the bridge itself reveals a structure no wider than the Avenue it extends (Delaware). It cuts off not a single street in its approach from Downtown, and even sports a pedestrian park before it even crosses Erie St.
Let’s focus public energy, commitment and dollars on the community’s real priorities, such as a Restored Humboldt Parkway, a re-imagine Scajaquada Boulevard, and a new Buffalo Streetcar System. Meanwhile, if there is the desire in the community, we could reimagine the Skyway (to borrow a phrase from the Erie Canal Harbor fight) with a lighter, quicker, cheaper approach:
- Create summer hours for bicycles and pedestrians
- Close the southbound half of the Skyway to cars and trucks from 9am to 5pm every Sunday in the summer.
- Close the Skyway to vehicles each Fourth of July for a fireworks viewing event.
- Commission new public art, making more use of the structure itself and the spaces it creates.
- Innovate new programming for the spaces beneath it, as done in Toronto and many other cities.
If the goal really is improved access to the Outer Harbor, a much better approach would be to restore the Michigan Street Bridge lift bridge. This simple project would restore easy access from the Inner Harbor and the African-American Heritage Corridor, while also improving and encouraging use of public transit, rail, bicycling, and walking, as many groups, such as Citizens for Regional Transit , GoBike, and Buffalo Slow Roll have long championed.
Lead image – Art by Peter Fowler