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Skyway math

It always bugs me that one of the much ballyhooed reasons to tear down the Skyway is because it would “make sense fiscally for Western New York in the long run.” But where is the actual math to back this up?

Well, let’s start with what it costs to maintain the Skyway. Using the Good Congressman’s own propaganda site as my source:

The Skyway requires painting every ten years which costs $15 million, and it has been suggested that it will require major sub-structural repairs which will require as much as $100 million in the years to come. Right now, the Skyway is undergoing $9 million in structural repairs and $15 million in painting.

The $100 million dollar estimate is Higgins’s own, and since it has no timetable or qualifying figures, I am discarding it. The $9 million dollar figure is reasonable, but also not specified for how long a period the repairs are for. I will take the average $1.5 million/year and double it for good measure, giving us a cost of $3 million/year in maintenance.

Now, how much would it take to tear it down? Good question. I haven’t seen any actual reliable estimates. We do know that it cost $45 million to take down a one mile stretch of John Norquist’s beloved Park East Freeway project, and that has nowhere near the height of the Buffalo Skyway. I’ve heard figures of as much as $100 million, so let’s split the difference and go with $75 million.

Now, what would it cost to replace the Skyway?

Alternatives range from a $250 million tunnel, to a lower replacement bridge costing $100 million, to upgraded roads and up to four $25 million lift bridges.

Let’s use the conservative and more realistic figure of $100 million. We add to that the $75 million from tearing down the Skyway and divide the whole thing by our average of $3 million/year in maintenance costs, arriving at… breaking even in 58 years.

I’m a fair guy, so let me take the Congressman’s side for the moment and do the math as I would if I was trying to justify it for my own benefit. Let’s say the Skyway needs $100 million in repairs tomorrow. That washes the $100 million it will cost to replace it, leaving only the $75 million to tear it down. Divide that by 3, and we get break even in 25 years.

By either estimate, replacing the Skyway will take somewhere between 25 and 58 years of normal maintenance spend before we recoup the cost. If you think I’m overestimating these costs, keep in mind that I haven’t included any figures for what it costs to paint, repair, and staff the four mechanical lift bridges that would supersede the Skyway. I’d love to know those costs, but I’ve had no luck in finding them.

My point is, and has always been, that if there is some $175 million in taxpayer funds floating around (that presumably we can’t give back to the taxpayers themselves) aren’t there better uses for that money now that would do far more to improve Buffalo in the near term? How about the demolition of 7500 vacant houses? How about begging for a Bass Pro North, South, and West? (HA!) How about refurbishing the Central Terminal as a new convention and event center and giving the Convention and Visitors Bureau back their funding to promote architectural tourism, one of Buffalo’s few growth industries? How about focusing on the near term “Canal Side” development which could be quickly successful, is already connected to downtown, and will immediately add to the waterfront that Buffalonians already use and enjoy? These would all have huge, immediate impacts on the city of Buffalo, and could possibly justify spending $175 million in taxpayer funds.

Or… we could use it to replace a bridge.

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