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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.

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