By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — One way or another, significant changes are in the works for the northern section of the Robert Moses Parkway.
Officials from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation on Wednesday unveiled their short list of alternatives for the section of the roadway running along the upper Niagara Gorge.
Their latest list consists of three alternatives, whittled down from the six originally considered as part of the initial phase of the formal parkway review process which started in 2010.
The overall Niagara Gorge Corridor Project envisions two potential phases, a first that would focus on the section of the parkway within city limits and a second, longer-term phase that would take into consideration the stretch beyond the city limits to Lewiston.
All three remaining alternatives have one thing in common: They all call for removal of the four-lane highway from downtown Niagara Falls to Findlay Drive in the city’s North End.
Total removal all the way to Lewiston remains a possibility, although the full scope of the final project will not determined until the end of a public comment period which runs through March 20. State parks began the process of soliciting comments during an open house Wednesday at Conference Center Niagara Falls.
“Today’s report is the culmination of what was proposed last year,” said Mark Thomas, Western District Director for State Parks. “We took community input and it is now narrowed down to three alternatives and two separate phases for moving forward.”
All remaining alternatives call for the redesign of Whirlpool Street into a “park-like road” to offer a lower-speed parkway replacement between Main and Findlay. The proposals would add new curbside overlooks, stairs and ramps to the lower level of the former parkway, a new multimodal trail system as well as restoration of native landscaping and reclamation of pavement areas. Removal of the Whirlpool Overpass and the expansion of the Gorge Discovery Center and Aquarium of Niagara footprint are included in all three packages as well.
The Findlay Drive plan follows the section of the city’s master plan pertaining to the Robert Moses Parkway north and mirrors a proposal submitted by the city as part of a 2009 request for federal stimulus funds to assist in parkway removal. It also has been discussed by parkway retention advocates as an acceptable alternative to the more extensive removal effort supported by many city residents and local environmental advocates.
“That’s something that’s very important to us as the city because we have a lot of reasons to want that part of the project removed quickly,” Mayor Paul Dyster said, referring to the Findlay Drive option. “So we are encouraged that there seems to be consensus at least on this part, that it can lead to a fundable, doable project.”
State officials estimate the first phase could be designed and constructed in about 30 months. Depending on which alternative is selected, the final cost for phase one would be between $17.5 million and $18.8 million. Carrying out both phases would be more expensive, with Alternate 6 — total removal to Lewiston — being the cheapest at $33 million. The most expensive option — Alternative 3 — has an estimated price tag of $52 million. The other option — officially known as Alternative 4 — calls for a redesigned park road to Devil’s Hole at an estimated cost of $49 million.
No specific revenue source has been identified, but local and state officials seemed assured the funds for the chosen alternative would be found somewhere. Potential partners discussed included the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission or the New York Power Authority, which U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Niagara Falls and Buffalo, called upon last month to supply $120 million for removal efforts.
“This is a huge step forward in the desperately needed effort to reconnect the City of Niagara Falls with its waterfront,” Higgins said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.
Chris Schoepflin, president of the state-run USA Niagara Development Corp. in downtown Niagara Falls, noted that the federal government picked up 80 percent of the $800,000 spent on the scoping process to date, with the state kicking in the remainder. He said a similar split would be in place for the cost of construction for the selected alternative.
Schoepflin said funds for design and construction will likely be available through Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “billion dollar” economic development initiative in Buffalo. Schoepflin said part of Cuomo’s initiative focuses on enhancing the Niagara Falls waterfront, suggesting any of the parkway redesigns would fit the bill as they all would involve integration of zip-lining, rock climbing and other outdoor activities.
“That creates a huge opportunity along what is our natural strength in that river gorge for true, outdoor, recreational opportunities,” Schoepflin said.
As has been the case for years, opinions which of the three remaining alternatives was best varied during the open house.
Lisa Vitello, a DeVeaux resident and member of the city’s tourism advisory board, said she prefers Alternative 6 — total removal to Lewiston. Vitello said she would be disappointed with anything less.
“It does the most to beautify the area along the gorge,” she said. “There’s no reason to have an old, dilapidated road along the gorge. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is something tourists come to see. Right now, that roadway all the way to at least the city line completely cuts the tourists and residents off from the gorge.”
Former Village of Lewiston Mayor Dick Soluri, a founding member of the local parkway preservation committee, supports Alternative 3, saying it is the “nearest thing” to a direct route to Lewiston among the list of remaining options.
“I think they would be depressed if the parkway’s removed,” Soluri said of north town residents. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”
A pair of state lawmakers in attendance Wednesday also backed Alternative 3, including state Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, and state Assemblyman John Ceretto, R-Lewiston.
“I am very supportive of that alternative and have been for years,” Maziarz said.
Ceretto said that while he also prefers Alternative 3, ultimately it will be up to residents to decide what is done with the route. The good news, he said, is that after many years of debate, some progress is finally being made.
“It’s been discussed for years and it’s just time to do something,” he said.