Bridge Project on Aggressive Schedule: Early Transparency is Key

Now in its scoping phase, the Buffalo Harbor Bridge Project is traveling at a nice clip according to Erie County Harbor Development Corporation Senior Project Manager Steven Ranalli.  There has not been a bridge to connect Downtown Buffalo to the Outer Harbor since the South Michigan Avenue Bridge that connected the inner and outer harbors was demolished by a runaway ship in 1959.

The ECHDC has come up with 4 preliminary options that they are reviewing with pertinent agencies, elected officials, stakeholders (commercial, residential, cultural) and the general public.  Though plans have been made and cast aside in the past for tunnels and bridges, Ranalli says that all of that legwork hasn’t gone to waste, as he’s digested it and applied it to present plans.  To coin a phrase, Ranalli wants it known that he’s “not reinventing the wheel,” but simply separating the good points from the bad in an effort to move forward in the right direction, and quickly.
On Ranalli’s schedule, the scoping phase should be complete this fall, with the Draft Environmental Impact Study (DEIS) completed in late 2010.  He expects the EIS and Record of Decision will be done in June of 2011, with bridge completion in 2013.  Making note of the proposed Signature Bridge snafus, Ranalli has also called in Fish and Wildlife experts, the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Transportation Council (there is a traffic study being done), and funding talks with government entities are already underway.  He expects that the bulk of the project will be federally funded.
Ranalli stresses that the bridge project has no bearing whatsoever on the future of the skyway and fears that public perception that the bridge would be a replacement for the skyway could ultimately slow things down as with the Signature Bridge/Truck Plaza controversy in the Peace Bridge community.  
“Our objective is to build a multi-modal crossing for pedestrians, bikes and cars,” Ranalli states, “and the project has to meet those goals.”  A tunneled crossing, such as was proposed in the mid 1990s, would virtually be “a skyway in reverse,” in that it would remove people from any surrounding development and the crossing itself.  It would also take up an inordinate amount of land at either end.  Ranalli says that past plans have set the tone for the need for a bridge to help form “the new downtown,” and in conjunction with Robert Shibley’s award winning Queen City Hub project and current stakeholder input, the bridge should satisfy both local and regional requirements and expectations.
Of the 4 bridge alternatives, there are many variables in type and size (therefore cost), as well as general function.  “Upfront, we’ll have one lane in each direction because it doesn’t make sense to put in a bridge wider than the roadway. We want to help people who are downtown and want to cross,” Ranalli explains. In this sense, he says, it is strictly a local bridge.  Still to be decided is whether the bridge will be a bascule, lift or swing design.
The stakeholder list for the project is 57 entities long, and their input is being sifted through and weighed heavily in the ongoing scoping process.  Rinalli feels that the earliest possible input and consideration of all “reasonable and feasible by federal standard” suggestions is the key to moving this project swiftly to fruition.  Some of the more creative ideas involve water taxis, whereas boaters and the U.S. Coastguard have misgivings about the Erie Street option, using the original South Michigan Avenue Bridge mishap as a precedent.  Boaters and the Coastguard, therefore, are looking at the Ganson Street alternative.
Likewise, while preservationists might favor the Erie Street option, with the hope that it will reinstate Erie on its original path, the redesign of the entire existing street is outside the scope of this particular project.  As for Michigan, the existing bridge lacks accessibility for the disabled as per ADA requirements, and further roadwork would be required. The Main Street alternative may have to angle as it crosses the City Ship Canal to make way for silos, but it looks like several elected officials and most business concerns favor the continuation of Main Street, which would touch down on Kelly Island before continuing to the Outer Harbor. 
As part of the ECHDC outreach effort, UB’s Center for Computational Research has made a 3D simulation of the area, which will include all alternatives, in order to allow Ranalli to make presentations of what the bridge outlines actually look like in their various forms and locations.
“I’ve been involved in other EIS studies in which elected officials have come and gone, stakeholders have changed…all of which increases the chance of being derailed,” Ranalli says.  “In this case, there’s a lot of precedent and we’re not in anyone’s backyard, so this shouldn’t be difficult to do.  It’s not an endless process.”
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About the author  ⁄ Elena Cala Buscarino

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