Niagara Gazette

December 7, 2012

Parkway changes coming?

By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette —

State officials hope to make the south end of the Robert Moses Parkway feel more like what it is - a parkway.

State and city officials on Friday unveiled plans to reconfigure the Robert Moses Parkway south in an effort to better promote the natural beauty of the riverside green space along the stretch of the roadway that runs to Niagara Falls State Park.

The plans deal with the stretch of the parkway that runs from the John B. Daly Boulevard exit to the exit near the Rainbow Bridge. Recommended changes include the development of an at-grade traffic circle where the elevated exchange near the Daly Boulevard exit now sits, pull off parking areas to replace roadside spots along the stretch leading to the state park and a single, two-lane road along the entire section. In addition, officials are proposing the installation of new pedestrian walkways to provide improved pedestrian access to the park.

The traffic circle and single road, along with plans to decrease the speed limit, will make that section of the park more attractive to pedestrians, Jeffrey W. Lebsack, the project manager from Hatch Mott MacDonald engineers and environmental consultants, said.

"One of the major things that we're trying to do is make the connections between the park and the city and allow lots of recreational and non-vehicular activities within the park," Lebsack said.

Residents and tourists will be more likely to use the southern section of the park if they feel safe crossing the road, Lesback said.

"We're going to create a friendly river way," Lesback said. "Curved, it's going to be low speed. It's not going to look like an extension of the expressway."

Officials said the plan follows the principles of Fredrick Law Olmsted - the man who designed Niagara Falls State Park, Central Park in New York City and Buffalo's parks system - with winding paths for the pedestrians and cyclists that officials are hoping to attract.

"The parks have very curving, multiple-route pathways so that you can come in one way and come back a different way," Lebsack said.

Sam Hoyt, the regional president of Empire State Development, said the plan is "totally consistent" with the vision that the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council has for the promotion of recreational tourism in the state park, though these plans predate the regional councils and Gov. Andrew Cuomo's "Buffalo Billion plan." Promoting tourism in Niagara Falls was highlighted as a key component of that plan during Cuomo's visit to the region earlier this week.

"We're taking something that I think truly is viewed as a barrier to the water's edge and making it inviting and not threatening to the pedestrian," Hoyt said. 

There is also a plan to potentially remake a pond that existed before the parkway was built over top of it.

Mayor Paul Dyster said the pond could be used to provide programming - fly-fishing, kayaking lessons, ice skating - to draw both residents and tourist into that section of the park.

"Think of all the programming elements that can accompany just a simple infrastructure upgrade like that," Dyster said. "But, we need to do stuff like that. We need more stuff for people to do and sometimes you have to have the infrastructure there to support that."

Representatives from the engineering firm estimate the cost of the project at between $15 million to $20 million.

Western Region State Parks Director Mark Thomas said that only $5 million has been secured for the project, but that a pledge from U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to help find funding and the emphasis on tourism in Niagara Falls in the "Buffalo Billion" plan give him confidence that the agencies will be able to secure funding.

Hoyt said that he can't make any commitments on behalf of the regional council or Cuomo, but said the fact that so many of the elements of the design align with the vision outlined in the governor's billion dollar initiative make it a good candidate for funding from that pool of state money.

Replacing the expressway and promoting recreation in Western New York will continue to be a priority for the Cuomo administration, Hoyt said.

"Robert Moses did some great things in his day," Hoyt said. "This wasn't one of them."

The construction will take a little more than a year and is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2014.

The south section reconfiguration plan was developed by officials from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Empire State Development Corp., the state-run USA Niagara Development Corp., the New York State Department of Transportation and the city of Niagara Falls.

The public will have an opportunity to offer its input on the proposal during a 30-day review period that will begin with an open house at the Conference and Events Center on Old Falls Street. Engineers and city and state officials will be on hand to answer questions during the session, which is scheduled for 3 to 8 p.m., Thursday.

Also on Friday, state officials confirmed that the results of the scoping process for the north end of the parkway will be made public in January. Officials said they will present several options and, as was the case with the southern section, the public will have a 30-day window to provide input before a final plan is chosen.