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The state Department of Transportation appears ready to support the removal of a nearly 1.5-mile elevated highway, which was built in the middle of the last century and is now considered functionally obsolete, structurally deficient and potentially susceptible to fractures.

The removal is seen by advocates as a catalyst for economic development and rebirth.

The Skyway? No, it’s the aging Interstate 81 in Syracuse, where the highway is expected to reach the end of its life span over the next several years. The state DOT is currently involved in a public process to explore alternatives, such as a tree-lined boulevard, which the city’s planning council hopes to have under construction in 2017.

However, the DOT for the first time now also is showing a willingness to review alternatives to the Skyway, the towering concrete connector between Buffalo’s downtown waterfront and the outer harbor.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, a longtime advocate for removing the Skyway, will announce today that DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald gave him that assurance in a letter earlier this month.

“We’re at a really seminal moment in terms of the future of the Skyway. The DOT’s response to a constituent and the commissioner’s to me are very, very different than what’s occurred in the past. They have kind of rejected categorically in the past any discussion about replacing the Skyway,” Higgins said.

McDonald’s letter to Higgins in response to his objections to retaining the Skyway revealed for the first time that the DOT would be conducting a review.

“I have directed my staff to conduct a ‘plausibility review’ to identify the critical issues associated with an undertaking of this complexity. Once this review is completed, we will be better able to have a meaningful discussion on the Skyway’s future,” McDonald wrote.

In separate correspondence to a local resident, which was provided to Higgins, Darrell F. Kaminski, acting DOT regional director, said: “In recognition of the significant investment associated with preserving the Skyway, it is both appropriate and prudent to identify and assess alternatives to its continued existence.

“While significant bridge work is several years away, New York State Department of Transportation staff will begin this review in the near term,” Kaminiski wrote.

Kaminiski told The Buffalo News in September that it would cost $35 million for Skyway decking and painting over the next five to 10 years. The DOT’s Skyway Management Study, in October 2008, suggested it will cost $117 million over the next 20 years to extend the Skyway’s life by 50 or more years. That’s more than the estimated $75 million price tag to build a pedestrian-friendly bridge that would link the downtown waterfront with the outer harbor.

That’s also far less than the estimated $500 million cost to replace the highway in Syracuse. It’s also a far cry from the $5 billion needed downstate to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Higgins said several projects that either are completed, will be started soon or are under review together offer an alternative to the Skyway. They are the Outer Harbor Parkway transformation of Fuhrmann Boulevard, improvements made to South Park Avenue, plans to turn Ohio Street into a riverfront parkway and the proposed bridge over the Buffalo River.

An estimated 40,000 vehicles per day use the Skyway currently, Higgins said. He expects the DOT’s review to include an analysis that examines potential traffic patterns for each of these alternate routes.

He also said removing the Skyway could open up 27.5 acres on the outer harbor for redevelopment.

email: msommer@buffnews.com