It’s not as high-profile as the Peace Bridge, but another long-envisioned transportation project has also been beset by delays and hard feelings.
Talk for years has centered on building 2.6 miles of trail along a former railroad bed in a Y-shaped formation through North Buffalo and connecting to a planned trail in the Tonawandas.
Now the city is leaning toward using the federal money to enhance and extend an existing path just 1,600 feet.
Federal funding for the path is set to expire soon, and critics of the city’s new plan for the undeveloped green space just north of Shoshone Park say it strays too far from the original vision.
Neighborhood groups around University Heights and North Park are split in response, with some supporting the extension of city-owned Minnesota Linear Park to Kenmore Avenue, and others holding out for the longer trails on a wooded right of way owned by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.
“Why would you use the standard of ‘better than nothing’ when you could have so much more?” asked Dave Bradley, a leader of an informal group called the North Buffalo Greenway Preservation Club.
Others, however, say they just want to see some progress on a much-delayed project that dates back to the early 1990s before time runs out.
“I’m supportive of it, yes,” Ray Reichert, vice president of the University Heights Collaborative, said of the city’s preliminary plan. “Would I like to see it do more? Yes. But I’m also realistic with respect to the dollars they were talking about eight years ago not going to go as far today.”
City officials say their plan could be just phase one of a multi-phase project.
“We’ve been trying to address all the issues by all the parties involved,” said Public Works Commissioner Steven Stepniak.
University Common Council Member Bonnie Russell, who represents the district, was unavailable to comment.
At risk is almost $1.2 million allocated in 2001 for the greenway that would be lost if the city doesn’t have a plan in place by the end of September, said Timothy Trabold, transportation programs manager for the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council, which administers the funds and approves plans.
“They’ve got to get the design done and the right of way agreement with the NFTA by September,” he said, though the process would be much less complicated if it only involves land already owned or maintained by the city.
Stepniak said he’s aware of the time constraints.
“We’ve been very aware of that clock right along, and we are paying attention to that,” Stepniak said. “We’re doing our due diligence so all those deadlines are successfully met.”
The money originated from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, which promoted environmentally friendly forms of transportation to reduce air pollution. A 2005 draft proposal by Buffalo’s Watts Architecture and Engineering has already cost almost $194,000, Bradley said.
“We think that the use of the Watts Engineering plan that people already paid all this money for is a good basis for that,” he said.
The Watts review looked at the feasibility of 2.6 miles of trails between Taunton Place and St. Lawrence Avenue, from the LaSalle Metro Rail Station on Main Street to Delaware Avenue, with bridges crossing Starin and Colvin avenues, and a spur north to Kenmore Avenue. Since then, however, a portion of the land between Colvin and Starin was sold off and became the Colvin Estates housing subdivision, which effectively reduced by half the amount of land available for the trail.
Bradley said he suspects the rails-to-trails project stalled because the land is being eyed again for future housing development. He led opposition to such proposals with a petition in 2008.
“It just seems like one excuse after another is being used to try and preserve the area for real estate development, which is just a step backwards,” he said.
In a separate Erie County project funded by the same federal program, the spur to Kenmore Avenue would continue north for four miles on a 12-foot-wide path through the Town and City of Tonawanda, ending at the Erie Canal. Connecting Main Street to the canal would still be realized in the city’s plan for the linear park, which currently runs from the Metro Rail station parking lot to Merrimac Street along the east side of a berm.
That connectivity is a main objective for Reichert and other supporters of the city’s plan who are willing to compromise.
“If the choice is going from Main Street to Kenmore Avenue or going from Main Street to Starin, I would choose Main Street to Kenmore Avenue,” he said. “If one of the choices is doing both, then I would certainly want to do both.”
The city’s plan also includes amenities such as lighting and signage, which its critics say isn’t necessary and wastes money that could be used to pave more trail instead.
“We feel that this really isn’t the purpose for all this money,” said James Rozanski, an architect and University District resident. “It’s part of it but not entirely. We feel that the city should be adhering to what’s been in the planning stages for all these years.”
City officials said they’re listening to input from all the community stakeholders involved. Bradley and Rozanski met in mid-July with Trabold and a group of city officials that included City Engineer Peter Merlo to express their concerns.
Bradley said a comment to him by a state Department of Transportation official after the meeting may sum up residents’ thoughts on where the project stands now.
“His comment was a great one,” Bradley said. “At the end of the meeting, we were standing out on the street and he said, ‘Why isn’t this done already?’ ”