ALBANY – The federal government has given final approval to a Cuomo administration plan to dramatically reshape the way vehicles get on and off the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, clearing the way for construction to begin in the fall.
The approval by the Federal Highway Administration, The Buffalo News has learned, came Tuesday with the sign-off of the $35 million project that involves new entrance and exit ramps, and a pedestrian bridge to the shoreline trail.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is expected to make the announcement of federal approval today, along with final environmental reviews by his Transportation Department.
Officials said design plans for the site are being finalized and will be completed when construction bids are put out in July. The state expects to award the construction project Sept. 24, with work beginning in October and being completed by the spring or summer of 2017.
As part of the bidding process, contractors will have to show how their work will have the least disruption on the busy international crossing.
“After years of gridlock and false starts, this approval represents another significant step towards improving access to the Peace Bridge from New York, and was done in just a little over one year,” Cuomo said in a statement provided to The News on Thursday. “This important project will improve traffic flow and commerce between New York State and Canada, move commercial traffic out of a residential neighborhood, and restore Front Park – welcome and long-awaited developments for the people of Buffalo.”
In a government document, officials said the $35 million project will not influence the overall speed of traffic going through the plaza and “therefore this project will have no effect on the vehicular emissions from traffic using the plaza or bridge.’’ The federal/state document also said suggestions to divert all truck traffic from the Peace Bridge to the Lewiston Queenston Bridge was studied and determined to be “unreasonable.’’
Documents pertaining to the project, including public comments and the federal and state decisions, can be found at https://www.dot.ny.gov/nygateway.
Cuomo, who last year had a highly public battle over the Peace Bridge with Canadian officials, is running for re-election this fall and, according to the construction bidding timetable, could have a photo opportunity at the bridge in October just prior to election day in November.
The project is being funded with $16 million in federal funds, $6.7 million from the state Thruway Authority and most of the rest from the state Department of Transportation. It is being handled solely by the state, not, like most bridge-related work, by the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, the binational panel that oversees the span’s operations.
Officials say the work is intended to get rid of the confusing lane-switching maze that can disrupt traffic getting onto and off the bridge in the U.S. They say the plan will reduce traffic on local streets and free more border agents to operate booths where motorists stop on entering the country.
The main work includes providing a direct access ramp from the bridge to the northbound lanes of the Niagara Thruway, opening a new way to get on the bridge for local traffic and vehicles traveling southbound on the Niagara Thruway and replacing the Porter Avenue bridge. Baird Drive will be removed from Front Park.
In all, the work will require building four new bridges at the site, and state officials say new pedestrian and biking improvements will be made as part of shoreline access work that includes a new pedestrian bridge taking people over rail tracks and the Niagara Thruway. A traffic signal at the plaza will be removed.
“The primary need of the project is to address the limited direct access between the plaza and Interstate 190,’’ states a memo on the state Transportation Department’s web site.
The project had a final environmental review approved by the federal government in March. On Tuesday, the state and Federal Highway Administration signed environmental review documents clearing the way for construction bidding.
Officials said Thursday the winning bidder will not necessarily be selected on a lowest-bid basis, but on “best value’’ under which bidders will have to meet certain thresholds of prior experience and written plans for reducing traffic problems during construction.
“It could do real damage to Western New York traffic during construction so there are a series of things bidders will have to propose on how they meet criteria’’ to avoid such problems, said a state official involved in the process who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official said the work, when completed, will end the ability of some drivers to mistakenly “skirt through’’ the primary border security checkpoint, freeing up border agents to shift from having to keep an eye on such situations to manning the facilities to more quickly process vehicles.
The federal action clears the way for construction this fall, a project that will take two full construction seasons to complete, officials said.
Bids will be due back from contractors on Aug. 27. The DOT will hold a public meeting once the contract is selected to go over the plans and proposals for limiting impact on traffic.