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NIAGARA FALLS – A half-century after Robert Moses built the Niagara Falls expressway that bears his name, New York State has finally agreed to tear it down.

Giving in to decades of local pleas to remove the Robert Moses Parkway, State Parks officials on Wednesday pledged to remove the highway from downtown Niagara Falls to its northern neighborhoods, and possibly farther.

The move drew cheers from local residents and raised hopes that Niagara Falls – in search of a true tourism identity – could become a leader in the growing eco-tourism market with the recovered Niagara gorge-front.

Some stretches of the Moses will remain, including between Interstate 190 and Niagara Falls State Park and possibly from the Niagara Falls city line to Lewiston and Youngstown.

But the two-mile stretch along the heart of the gorge – where residents have to hop fences, scale embankments and walk across four lanes of concrete expressway to access nature trails – will be gone in three to four years, officials say.

In its place will be native plantings and a multi-use nature trail that could feature hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, horseback riding and even zip-lining, all of which will be accessible from city streets for the first time in more than 50 years.

Vehicles will still have access to the gorge and points north along Whirlpool Street, which will be transformed from a crumbling road into a low-speed, two-lane parkway like that in Niagara Falls, Ont.

That road will allow tourists and residents to drive along the gorge and to a number of underutilized state parks north of Niagara Falls, but the road will not run as close to the gorge rim as the parkway does.

Most significantly, the plans allow the state to begin work on removing the Niagara Falls parkway stretch while debate continues on a more controversial stretch to Lewiston.

That section – from Findlay Drive in the city’s North End to Center Street in Lewiston – will either become a two-lane park road with an adjacent nature trail or a completely natural environment with vehicle access only on existing residential streets.

Environmentalists want forested areas along that stretch restored while Lewiston business interests and State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, say tourists from Niagara Falls need a more direct route to the burgeoning lakefront village.

A final option for that controversial stretch will be chosen after more public input, but the state intends to begin work on the agreed-upon portion within Niagara Falls immediately.

The removal project is expected to take two years for further design and engineering and another year to build. Costs range from $33 million for the more natural design option to around $50 million for the other two options.

Officials are targeting federal highway dollars for the project, a strategy pursued on another part of the parkway by U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. In addition, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, is pressuring the New York Power Authority to pay more than $100 million for the plan and others say the project could qualify for the governor’s Buffalo Billion plan.

On Wednesday Higgins said, “This is a huge step forward in the desperately needed effort to reconnect the City of Niagara Falls with its waterfront. Niagara Falls deserves a waterfront it can be proud of and the New York Power Authority has the means and the responsibility to swiftly move this from a review to results.”

Mayor Paul Dyster said, “I don’t think there’s anything that could be more impactful to the revitalization of downtown and the city’s North End business district than dealing with the Robert Moses Parkway. We’ve been dealing with this for some time, and we’re anxious to see some action.”

The highway, which stretches along the city’s waterfront, was built by Moses, the state’s “master builder,” in the 1960s as a supplement to the Niagara Power Project. The road provided unparalleled views of the Niagara Gorge to motorists but cut off generations of city residents from the waterfront and diverted traffic outside of the central business districts of Niagara Falls.

State officials have considered the removal of Moses’ masterwork for years – with no success – before agreeing a few years ago to work with the state’s USA Niagara Development Corp. and city officials to facilitate a concrete plan. Officials say the plan unveiled Wednesday reflects hundreds of public comments on the matter.

The move would connect city streets – currently walled off by fences and guardrails – to the breathtaking but largely untapped asset that is the gorge, raising property values and potentially saving neighborhoods that are slipping into decay.

New construction would create a new tourism “node” along the upper gorge corridor by integrating existing attractions with new possibilities in the eco-tourism market, which has become a $650 million industry nationwide and continues to grow.

The plan would create “greatly expanded parkland that will spur the outdoor recreation economy and turn Main Street into a thriving waterfront district,” said Christopher J. Schoepflin, president of USA Niagara Development.

It would also constitute the largest expansion of Niagara parkland since the Niagara Reservation was created in the 1880s.

More details about the plan can be found at blogs.buffalonews.com/niagara_views/.

email: cspecht@buffnews.com