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If planners had known how expensive it would be to return cars to Main Street in downtown Buffalo, they may not have blocked them out in the first place more than 30 years ago.

Now entering its sixth year of construction, the reintroduction of vehicles is reaching its most expensive segments, with more than $80 million of work anticipated in the next few years.

The city is working with the region’s lawmakers to secure a federal transportation grant to cover most of the $35 million cost of the fourth phase, and leaders of Buffalo, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and Buffalo Place now want to start looking into funding for the $45 million needed for the fifth and final stage.

“We would like to get this thing done sometime in the next few years,” said Keith M. Belanger, chairman of Buffalo Place, the nonprofit downtown business-improvement organization that is coordinating the effort with the city and the NFTA as part of its mission of strengthening the downtown core.

The goal of the Cars Sharing Main Street project is to restore easier vehicle access to Main Street businesses and residents, who have long complained that downtown was harmed by the elimination of cars on Main and its five-year conversion into a pedestrian mall starting in 1982.

Plans also call for restoring Pearl Street to two-way traffic, but without the street improvements and aesthetic enhancements that are being made all along Main.

“The pedestrian mall never worked,” said Buffalo Place Executive Director Michael T. Schmand. “…What we’re doing is changing a big wrong in downtown Buffalo.”

The effort began in 1999 with feasibility studies, design work, environmental review and government approvals, before shovels hit the ground in the summer of 2008. Already, work on three sections has cost about $31 million over five years.

The project’s total cost is $111 million, far in excess of the $44 million originally spent to put in the mall and train in the first place, but actually identical in value when adjusted for inflation.

Unlike the original project, though, this is being done in measured pieces, with work on both the roads and trains at the same time, so that the businesses aren’t disrupted as they were 30 years ago. And so far, it’s on time and on budget.

The plan covers a large portion of Main where the Metro Rail trains run aboveground.

The design envisions one lane of traffic in each direction for both trains and cars, with a lane of parking or “cut-ins” on either side, and curb “bump-outs” at intersections.

Cars will follow the trains and must stop behind them at stations, but officials say the traffic signals will be timed to minimize how often cars stop at lights.

The speed limit will be just 15 miles per hour. That way, it will be easier to get to businesses that are located on Main, but parallel streets will be more favorable for through traffic.

Finding the money

“Main Street is not going to be a fast street, but it’ll have access to all of the buildings,” said Debra L. Chernoff, Buffalo Place manager of planning.

The city is waiting for a response to its application for a new $28 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the fourth phase.

That involves the portion of Main from Mohawk to Court streets – including the 400 block and primary office district – and south of Exchange Street to Perry Street. The final phase covers Exchange to Court.

If the money comes through, the entire stretch of Main from Goodell Street to Canalside will have a similar look, with minor finishing differences between districts – such as different trees or flowers or historical markers – but identical overall layouts and amenities.

“What we hope to do with it is make people in Western New York and visitors who come here realize what a beautiful downtown we have,” Schmand said.

The project includes changes to the Metro Rail line and stations themselves, which are being rebuilt with silver stainless steel frames, glass walls and roofs, and radiant heat.

That will make them less intrusive, while providing passengers some security and protection from the weather.

The tracks and track beds are also being replaced, with new precast concrete panels and new curbs to keep cars away from the station ramps.

In some places, the curbs will be “mountable,” or angled so cars can park at the stations, where illuminated metal posts known as bollards can be erected quickly in preset positions to either block or allow that parking.

So far, the 700 block from Goodell to Tupper Street has been converted back to traffic.

Already, that $2.2 million project brought more activity to that stretch, with new businesses moving in and building owners improving storefronts and facades even before construction was completed.

“We kind of thought construction would finish and then storefronts would fill up,” Chernoff said.

“But that’s not what happened. As soon as the project was announced, most of the storefronts on this project filled up.”

The $7.8 million conversion of the 600 block of Main Street – the Theater District, from Tupper to Chippewa Street – is expected to wrap up and open this fall, Chernoff said.

Work on that section is mostly complete, aside from some signs and finishing touches. That section still has a separate car lane on each side of the tunnel where the train emerges, but those lanes will merge with the tracks, with a railroad crossing gate installed to keep cars separate when a train comes from underground.

The last major piece is the installation of a new train control system in a “black box,” Chernoff said. The NFTA then will spend several weeks testing the controls before converting the trains over.

Meanwhile, work is progressing at Fountain Plaza, from Chippewa to Huron Street, and in the 500 block, from Huron to Mohawk Street. As part of the $21 million third phase, Mohawk also is being opened up from Pearl Street to Washington Street, cutting across Main, for the first time in 30 years. Additionally, Genesee Street is being extended from Washington to Main, providing access to several new storefronts and residences along what is currently a street plaza.

‘Coming together’

Chernoff said that a lot of the work taking place now is underground, noting that many of the buildings in that area just received new water connections. Utility work is done, storm water drainage collectors are being installed, and new light pole foundations are going in.

Much of the sidewalk is finished at M&T Center, and Chernoff said the northbound Metro Rail station is “rapidly coming together,” with the structure up and glass being installed.

That will be completed and in use in a few weeks, when trains switch over to that side of the road and work will shift to the southbound station and western side of the street. The block will reopen in fall 2015.

“Right now, the funding is set to stop here, and we think it’s so important to continue this project south,” Schmand said.

“This is everybody’s Main Street.”

email: jepstein@buffnews.com