$1B Buffalo Highway Stirs Debate

The Kensington Expressway is a contentious issue in the "Queen City".

Source : Wikimedia Commons

March 21, 2024

Author : Alex Bustillos

A $1 billion project intended to revitalize a Buffalo, New York neighborhood has sparked a heated debate. The proposal seeks to cover a three-quarter-mile section of the sunken Kensington Expressway with a park, aiming to reconnect the communities it divided decades ago. Yet, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and some residents and community groups argue the plan falls short and could worsen the expressway’s existing harms.

The Kensington Expressway, built in the 1950s, sliced through a historic parkway designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, displacing hundreds of homes within a predominantly Black neighborhood. It was intended to boost commutes but instead contributed to population decline, economic struggles, and severe health problems on Buffalo’s East Side. “When I dust, I find black soot from the cars,” laments Marcia Ladiana, a retired environmental engineer and longtime resident. “You can’t escape it. People are getting sick left and right.”

While the park-covered tunnel project promises to mend the neighborhood physically, critics point to ongoing pollution concerns. The uncovered portions of the highway would continue to emit pollutants, particularly near the tunnel exits. “They’re not following all of the climate change laws,” asserts Ladiana. “They’re doing nothing to reduce air pollution. What they’re doing is just pushing all of the pollution out of each side.”

Some residents and community groups propose bolder solutions, like fully removing the expressway, restoring the original street grid, introducing a transit line to reduce reliance on cars, or expanding the plan to address both the Kensington and nearby Scajaquada Expressway. India Walton, an East Side resident and former Buffalo mayoral candidate, believes the proposal doesn’t go far enough: “The Kensington cap is like a Band-Aid over a huge wound. Buffalo deserves more and better.”

The New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) argues that completely removing the expressway would worsen traffic congestion on already strained roadways. They view the cap project as the best compromise between addressing community concerns and maintaining traffic flow, noting years of public input in its design.

This Buffalo debate reflects a national challenge as cities seek to reverse the injustices of mid-20th-century urban highway projects. “It’s hard to do that with capping,” states Lanessa Owens-Chaplin, an NYCLU attorney involved in a similar project in Syracuse. Discussions about the merits and limitations of freeway caps are happening across the country as communities seek funding from the federal Reconnecting Communities program.

The NYCLU is demanding a full environmental impact statement, potentially leading to significant project changes or legal challenges. The outcome, with a Federal Highway Administration decision imminent, will shape how cities tackle these complex infrastructure issues, with profound implications for environmental justice, traffic efficiency, and addressing the lingering damage of historical inequities.

Category : Department of Transportation Local Government State Government

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