Cars cruising lower Main Street could complement an increasingly vibrant waterfront if Sen. Charles E. Schumer succeeds in obtaining new federal funding for the stretch between Exchange Street and the waterfront.
But the plan for traffic and Metro Rail to share Main Street also means that construction will continue to snarl summertime transit schedules for several years to come – just when Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus officials predict an enhanced transportation and development role for the subway.
For Mayor Byron W. Brown, however, the disruption caused by summerlong projects rebuilding Metro Rail’s surface section will prove a downtown boon in the long run.
“It’s absolutely a concern,” Brown said of subway delays during a Monday news conference near the Canalside project. But he noted that while the city’s partnership with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority on the multiyear project may cause 20-minute intervals between trains, there will be a long-term benefit in the form of significant development.
“We believe, ultimately, that by moving this project forward, it will reduce waiting time on the NFTA’s Metro Rail,” Brown said.
Brown applauded Schumer’s efforts to obtain $28 million in federal transportation grants to open lower Main Street over the next few years. And Schumer called the project critical to providing easy access to a booming waterfront as well as jump-starting economic development along Main Street – including finding a new use for the mostly vacant former HSBC Center.
Most of Main Street in the downtown area has been closed to vehicular traffic since the construction of Metro Rail in the 1980s, but the city has been working toward cars and Metro Rail sharing Main Street for several years.
“This is a critical time for a Main Street face-lift,” the senator said. “And once Main Street is redone, it should make rehabilitation of the HSBC tower something that could happen.”
But Medical Campus officials also have expressed concern that their efforts to encourage public transit at their downtown facility could be stymied by the wariness of commuters to wait for trains delayed by the construction. In fact, NFTA officials reported earlier this year that subway ridership had declined by a whopping 25 percent because of the longer intervals between trains.
Brown, in his first public comments about the situation, said Monday he believes that the long-term benefits will justify any inconvenience now or in the several years needed to complete the entire Main Street project.
He cited the “phenomenal investment” that he pegged at $1 billion along Main Street and the Medical Campus, and said that returning cars to Main Street also will spur more development in a downtown long devoid of retail and residential activity.
“This is an update of 30-year-old infrastructure the city deems obsolete,” Schumer added. “The net benefits of this will be close to $100 million.”
Schumer, Brown and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, all weighed in on the ultimate benefits of reintroducing vehicles to Main Street and making vacant and underused storefronts more attractive to reinvestment.
“We have seen firsthand what can happen when we open new parts of Main Street to vehicular traffic on the 500 to 700 block of Main Street,” Schumer said. “Opening up lower Main Street to vehicular traffic and upgrading the Metro Rail infrastructure would tie all of these new developments together in a sensible way and help speed up the revitalization process for an area that is showing new signs of life.”
Higgins said the federal grants are already pumping new life into downtown following efforts to reopen the northern end of downtown Main Street to traffic.
“Over three decades ago automobiles were removed from Main Street, pulling traffic and people away from our central corridor and, as a result, turning the potential for economic prosperity and growth away from this stretch as well,” he said. “When the 700 block reopened to traffic, reconnecting the downtown business district with the growing Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, we saw people come back to Main Street both for business and residential opportunities.”
Schumer acknowledged that the money the city seeks for cars and Metro Rail vehicles to share Main Street is not yet secured. But the New York Democrat noted his success in the past for projects that have already restored traffic to the 700 block of Main Street and that will restore traffic to the 600 block by this fall.
The next round of federal transportation grants that he hopes to obtain also will be used for restoring traffic to a portion of Main Street south of Court Street.
“I’ll be the No. 1 advocate for this project,” Schumer said. “I will do everything I can to see that Main Street is no longer a thorn in the side of downtown development, but a jewel in its crown.”
Schumer also said he prefers local ownership of the Buffalo Bills when the team is sold by the estate of Ralph C. Wilson Jr. later this year, even mentioning – but not endorsing – the proposed bid by former Buffalo Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano.