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.

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