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The multiyear project to return cars to Main Street in downtown Buffalo has begun a transformation that once had only been dreamed of. The revitalization is encouraging and builds on the energy from development of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the waterfront.

The work is entering its sixth year of construction and is years from completion, with the most expensive work – $80 million of it – still ahead.

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. Leaders of Buffalo, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and Buffalo Place now want to start exploring funding for the $45 million needed for the fifth and final stage.

The 700 block from Goodell to Tupper streets has already been converted back to traffic. Drivers seem to appreciate access to Main, but perhaps not as much as the businesses getting the benefit of increased traffic. If you haven’t been to that block lately, make the trip to see the redone streetscape with its new stores and refurbished facades. That’s the kind of progress that should continue south on Main as the project moves on.

Work is expected to wrap up this fall on the 600 block of Main in the Theater District from Tupper to Chippewa Street.

The debate over whether to return cars to Main Street revolved around three arguments: it would save downtown, it would destroy downtown, or none of the above. Robert G. Shibley, dean of the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, said the overall conclusion was that returning cars to Main Street would add value. And with major restoration work of the Metro Rail track bed necessary regardless, why not do it in a way that makes room for cars? The reconstruction will still allow the city to close the street to cars for special events programming.

The blueprint for what is taking place on Main Street was contained in the “Queen City Hub,” Shibley’s proposal for revitalizing downtown published in 2003.

When a community makes it clear that it is headed in the right direction, developers will invest because they see a reasonable degree of predictability. The biggest investments so far have been at opposite ends of downtown – the Medical Campus and waterfront. But many smaller projects, including apartments, restaurants and stores, have sprung up or are planned for the blocks between those nodes. Getting vehicles back on Main Street will help those efforts by improving access and adding to the sense of busyness downtown.