Category Archives: Skyway

Posts related to the constant debate about the usefulness and future of the Buffalo Skyway.

Higgins vs. The Skyway, the return

Congressman Brian Higgins today repeated his call for the Skyway to be torn down and replaced, and every news outlet ran with it like it was major news.  It’s been four years since I’ve written on the topic, but the claims that Higgins made today seemed to me to be more over the top than usual, and some of them seem to be either half-truths or lies.

Let’s start with the subheading of Higgins’s statement, specifically the safety-related portion of it – “20 Year Cost of Upkeep on Elevated Highway Deemed “Fracture Critical,” “Functionally Obsolete” and “Deficient” Expected to Reach Over $100 Million”.  First, you have to have an understanding of these different terms.  According to NYSDOT, “structurally deficient” means:

Bridges are considered “structurally deficient,” according to the FHWA, if the condition rating of one of its major components is less than 5, the bridge has inadequate load capacity, or repeated bridge flooding causes traffic delays.  The fact that a bridge is “structurally deficient” does not imply that it is unsafe or likely to collapse.

“Functionally obsolete” simply means that bridge doesn’t meet current design standards in respect to things like lane and shoulder widths, or the current traffic load exceeds what it was designed for.  “Fracture critical” according to the Save Our Bridges project means:

A “fracture critical” bridge is defined by the FHWA as a steel member in tension, or with a tension element, whose failure would probably cause a portion of or the entire bridge to collapse.

Fracture critical bridges, of which there are a total of about 18,000 throughout the U.S., lack redundancy, which means that in the event of a steel member’s failure there is no path for the transfer of the weight being supported by that member to hold up the bridge. Therefore, failure occurs quickly, as reflected in the video that captured the collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minnesota.

I’ve perused the NYSDOT bridge data for all the bridge segments that make up the Skyway from Lackawanna to Buffalo.  While several are noted as being functionally obsolete, none that I found were noted as being structurally deficient by the Federal guidelines, and only a couple fell slightly under NYS’s stricter standards.  In fact, since some components were just completely reconstructed within the last year they gain the NYSDOT’s highest rating.  While I can’t find online the Federal DOT report that Higgins references in his letter to the NYSDOT, Save our Bridges does not list the Skyway as being “fracture critical.” So is Higgins just trying to use scare tactics to make the public think the Skyway is about to fall down?  If it was really that dangerous, why would the Congressman suggest that the best course of action is to, “put the brakes on long-term maintenance of the Buffalo Skyway while alternatives are reviewed.”

On the financial claims, once again the Congressman fails to release a complete apples-to-apples comparison of maintenance to the Skyway vs. demolition and rebuild with an alternative plan.  Instead, he’s comparing the $117 million to maintain the Skyway for the next 50 years vs. $75 million to construct a new bridge that would, at best, be one component of the network of new roads and bridges needed to replace the Skyway.  No maintenance costs are included in that figure.

Also not included in that figure are any plans, proposals, or costs to build all the other components needed to reroute the 43,000 daily vehicles that cross the Skyway, a significant portion of which connect to the I-190.  And no, all those drivers won’t just jump onto the 90 at Hamburg due to the toll annoyance and that there are many portions of the I-190 that are already at or over peak capacity.  Since Higgins himself said the Southtowns Connector project will never happen, and that the last thing anyone wants is Niagara Falls Boulevard on the waterfront, what is the alternative plan?  You don’t do transportation planning well by removing a frequently used thoroughfare and replace it with nothing.  That would be “functionally obsolete” from day 1.

I don’t believe in “preserving” the Skyway the same way that I believe in preservation of Buffalo Central Terminal.  As the Congressman says, we need to steer scarce transportation dollars towards the right projects.  We don’t, however, arrive at the right solution through incomplete analysis, rhetoric, and scare tactics.

The Skyway Report

Congressman Brian Higgins recently released a news brief citing a report from the NYSDOT entitled “New York State Route 5 Buffalo Skyway Management Study“. In his press release, Higgins selectively released facts to bolster his position that tearing down the Skyway makes the most sense.

According to the report, presented by the NYSDOT at the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council’s (GBNRTC) Policy Committee meeting today, the long term cost of maintaining the Buffalo Skyway for the next 75 years would reach nearly $125 million. Under cheaper maintenance options, the bridge could be maintained for 20 years at a cost of $42.7 million or for 50 years at an expense of almost $109.25 million. Preliminary estimates place the cost of Skyway demolition between $30 and $40 million.

“If we don’t pay the price to demolish this 52 year-old structure, this community will pay the price in terms of lost development opportunity and future maintenance expenses for years to come,” added Congressman Higgins.

Well, sure then! If it’s only going to cost $40 million to tear it down and $125 million to maintain it for the next 75 years, then of course it makes sense to nix it! Oh, except this is another case of only telling half the story. The missing half is what do we replace it with?

And while the report explicitly states it is not intended to evaluate alternatives to the Skyway, the report’s data supports the conclusion that if it were eliminated, the Skyway’s traffic could be handled by alternate facilities including the Outer Harbor Parkway which is currently under construction, the planned and permitted Ohio Street improvements and Tifft Street Connector, and the Inner Harbor Bridge which is currently under study.

To get a complete and accurate analysis of the maintenance costs of the Skyway vs. an alternative, we would need factor in construction costs for the Ohio Street improvements, Tifft Street Connector, Inner Harbor Bridge, and any additional reconfiguration of the Outer Harbor Parkway to complete the road network. That cost? Undetermined. And don’t forget that the figures reported in the DOT study are for maintenance of an existing roadway, not building a new one, so we would need to figure in 75 years worth of maintenance for these new elements as well. Then, we might have a complete picture of the financial impact of the Skyway.

So, when you know that the numbers don’t give you quite the answer you were looking for, you need some padding. Enter the completely immeasurable “untapped potential” figure.

Congressman Higgins noted that opportunity cost must also be factored into a cost/benefit analysis of Skyway removal, and by conservative measures, maintenance of the existing structure would impede an estimated $47.5 million in private sector development along the approximately 25 acre stretch currently occupied by the Skyway. “With the recent opening of the Erie Canal Harbor commercial slip we, as a community, can visualize the great untapped potential for the acres of unused land under the Skyway. Opening up this area has not only an immediate economic impact as a result of new development on this property, but has a multiplier effect in terms of the new jobs and sales tax produced at commercial sites and new property tax collected through residential development,” said Higgins.

Well there you go – we’re missing out on $47.5 million dollars if we DON’T do this project – an estimate that conveniently is just a wee bit more than the stated demolition cost. And of course there is the “immediate economic impact” of opening this wee bit of land up. Question – what was the measurable immediate economic impact of releasing the existing outer harbor land from the grasp of the NFTA? Answer? $0 Because as with any project in Buffalo, the land wasn’t sold off to developers that might actually do something with it, it was turned over to a politician-selected group of people to begin studies, make renderings, and begin the required 20 years debate and despair period before everyone gives up and we end up with McDonald’s-on-the-Lake.

So, what else does the actual report say that Mr. Higgins might have left off?

  • The Skyway is currently in good condition.
  • The Skyway is protected by a moisture-curing, urethane paint system and, with a typical life expectancy, would not require “spot and zone” repairs and a maintenance overcoat before 2020.
  • With the completion of the Ohio Street reconstruction and the Fuhrmann Boulevard reconstruction, the average number of vehicles daily using the bridge is forecast to increase only marginally. (Emphasis mine – I’m assuming this does not take into account any new development along the outer harbor)

There’s a ton of great information in this report, such as how often is the Skyway is closed due to weather?

  • Over a three-year reporting period, from October 2003 to December 2006, weather closed the Skyway in both directions four times.

Read that again – over three years there were only 4 weather related closings. The full report does not indicate if there were general travel bans during these times.

And what about accidents? We all “know” that the Skyway is like super dangerous!

  • Over a three-year reporting period, from October 2003 to December 2006, accidents closed the Skyway in one direction 12 times and shut down a single lane 15 times.
  • Over a four-year reporting period, from December 2002 to January 2007, the Buffalo Police documented 94 accidents on the Skyway.

Wow. Sounds like a lot! How does that compare with other roads in New York State?

The first segment (Segment 1) extends from the west (south) end of the Skyway (MP 302.7) to I-190 and had an Annual Average Daily Traffic (AADT) of 40,931 in year 2006. A total of 49 accidents including those with sufficient information to locate them and those with insufficient information to locate but assumed to occur on this segment, took place over this segment during the four year and one month period. This reflects a rate of 1.00 accidents per million vehicle miles of travel (acc/mvmt). This rate is approximately 32 percent less than the statewide average rate of 1.47 acc/mvmt for a fully access controlled, 4 lane divided urban highway.

That’s the data for the bridge itself. People are not freaking out being on the top of a tall bridge and suddenly careening into the concrete side walls. Where might there be actual problems? Where people have to enter and exit and merge!

The second segment (Segment 2) is located between the I-190 interchange (MP 303.6) and the east (north) end of the Skyway at MP 303.9. It extends 0.3 miles. A total of 8 reported accidents occurred during the study period. This total includes both those located specifically on this section of the bridge and those assumed to occur here. Using a 2006 two-way AADT of 13,338 over this section yields an average accident rate of 1.34 acc/mvmt. This is approximately 9 percent less than the statewide average rate of 1.47 acc/mvmt for a fully access controlled, 4 lane divided urban highway.

An exit ramp diverges from inbound Skyway to southbound I-190 at MP 303.55. A cluster of accidents occurred at this location. It is identified as cluster 1 on Figure 4-3. During the study period, a total of 13 accidents were reported at this location. This total includes both those located specifically at this location and those assumed to occur here. An average accident rate of 0.40 accidents per million entering vehicles (acc/mev) occurred at this juncture. This is approximately 2.5 times greater than the statewide average rate of 0.16 acc/mev for diverging 1 lane urban off ramp.

The second cluster of accidents (cluster 2) is shown on Figure 4-3 and occurred where the southbound I-190 exit ramp joins the outbound Skyway. During the study period, a total of 24 accidents were reported. These included both those located specifically at this location and those assumed to occur here. An average accident rate of 0.75 acc/mev occurred at this juncture. This is approximately 6.8 times greater than the statewide average rate of 0.11 acc/mev for a merging 2 lane urban on ramp.

The big problem is not with the Skyway at all, but with the fact that the I-190 South does not provide adequate room for traffic merging onto the I-190 S from the Niagara St. ramp and merging off onto the Skyway to coexist. While the illustration in the full report only circles the ramp to the southbound Skyway (cluster 2), anyone that travels that section on a regular basis knows that all the accidents occur in far right merge lane between the two ramps, not on the Skyway itself.

The full report also has a key bit of information in it that is counter to the main argument of most anti-Skyway orators, but it doesn’t come flat out and say it – you need to read between the future traffic projection colored lines (Figures 3-5 and 3-6). While the Skyway itself is underutilized, the I-190 is currently near capacity and is projected to be over capacity by 2030. The tear-it-down advocates postulate that since the Skyway is under utilized, it’s not needed and people can just use the I-90 and I-190 instead. However, the reverse is actually true – an overcrowded I-190 might actually drive traffic TO the Skyway. Isn’t this was planners are supposed to take into consideration? You know, planning for the future? Should we eliminate an under capacity roadway to cause an at capacity roadway reach over capacity quicker? That doesn’t make a hellovalotta sense.

If you just read the Higgins press release, you might think that the Skyway really isn’t needed. That’s what happens when you’re given half the facts.

Raise it up

The Buffalo Ruse has a farcical look into the future of the Skyway

The New York State Department of Transportation has issued a dramatic proposal to eliminate the Buffalo Skyway by the year 2019. Instead of demolishing the structure, as a recent urban renewal commission has suggested, The DOT’s plan calls for raising the City of Buffalo itself to match the highest point of the 110-foot tall Skyway.

“This is not a new idea,” stated Jonathan Manly, a NYS DOT spokesman. “The city of Seattle was raised dramatically 100 years ago to eliminate the flooding issues that regularly destroyed parts of that city. In Buffalo we’re not seeing floods. What we’re dealing with here is a brutal ugliness that has taken generations to achieve. But that problem would be eliminated in a mere decade simply by raising the municipal area up to the same altitudinal grade as the Skyway.”

State DOT Engineer Evan Brady says that according to the current architectural drawings, the top floor of virtually every tall structure in downtown Buffalo would serve as the first floor after the City is raised. “We would have a dramatic underground network of Grade A office space absolutely unique in the entire nation.” The major exceptions to this are City Hall and the HSBC towers, whose entry floors will be the 14th and the 21st floor respectively.

At a hastily convened press conference held under the aging span, Congressman Brian Higgins and former ambassador to Malta Anthony Gioia both sounded enthusiastic about the proposal. “We’re talking about an engineering feat that would bring tourists from around the world,” said Higgins. “What other city in the world will be able to claim that it eliminated a towering eyesore by raising itself to the same level of that very eyesore?”

Read the full article

Boulevarnalism

In what has to be one of the worst displays of hyperlocal “journalism” by Buffalo Rising ever, I present Route 5 @ 5. In an attempt to sway the opinion of what we can assume they thought was an audience of bobble-heads, they posted a photo of a moderate amount of traffic coming off the skyway at 5pm last Friday. This photo was supposed to make everyone believe that there are no traffic jams caused by the recently added Ohio Street traffic light in the construction zone. Unfortunately for Buffalo Rising, people with actual cars also can read and responded in droves to the bastardization of the facts. You know, facts like traffic on a Friday during the summer is especially light (anyone who’s ever listened to a traffic reporter, or, you know, driven a car would know this) and that traffic only starts building at 5pm, because that’s when people start getting out of work on a normal day. The writer, Steve Stipanovich, wants so badly to make you believe in the “boulevard alternative” that’s he’s completely willing to warp facts and logic, launching a new brand style of writing – Boulevarnalism.

It’s true I no longer travel Route 5 on a daily basis anymore, but I did have the opportunity a few weeks ago. At 5:15pm it was a parking lot. It’s not a snail race because of the construction, traffic gets backed up onto the 190 because of a single stoplight added at Ohio Street. Now the anti-Skyway zealots said that traffic would simply reroute itself around any slowdowns one a slow boulevard with lots of stoplights was in place, and commuters would simply switch to driving an alternate path. Obviously this hasn’t been the case so far.

Earlier this week we were promised a whole series of articles detailing “current boulevard traffic patterns and reports”. Nobody has ever accused Buffalo Rising of being fair and balanced, but if future articles have anything like the egregious distortions in today’s article, they’d be doing themselves a favor by filing it in the same bin currently holding the Tifft Street Arterial plans.

Another reason to keep the Skyway

No, it’s not because Mary Kunz Goldman said it’s the best feature of Buffalo’s waterfront, although that was a surprise to read. It’s that yet another of the oft-repeated reasons to tear it down is about to be disproven. We’ve heard before that Buffalo doesn’t have the shipping traffic it once had, so we don’t need a bridge that high anymore. But today’s
Business First of Buffalo says that the grain mills be a-comin’ back!

In the course of discussions about its own feed corn procurement needs for ethanol production, RiverWright started talks with grain industry leaders to gauge interest in coming to Buffalo to partner, invest in the grain storage and handling business, and to rebuild and restore the elevators and the marine and rail infrastructure that feeds them.

Those discussions led to the deal, signed Tuesday, to purchase the Lake & Rail elevator and invest in further improvements of the elevator and surrounding infrastructure.

A reuse of grain elevators (for their original purpose, no less)? Increased rail and shipping? More industry in Buffalo? Somebody better put a stop to all this insanity soon. There’s probably an endangered fungus on the shoreline that needs protecting or something.