BUFFALO, N.Y. –"Scajaquada needs guardrail near park," the headline reads, appearing in a Dec. 2003 edition of The Buffalo News.
The four-paragraph plea for help continues:
"On Dec. 14, I witnessed an accident in which a car skidded off the Scajaquada Expressway into Delaware Park and struck a woman who was walking on Ring Road," the letter reads, attributed to a woman from Buffalo. "Several inches of snow had fallen that day and road conditions were questionable at best."
The woman concludes that the "lack of a guardrail" contributed to the accident, and she claims the mayor's office "brushed off" her concerns. She later laments the danger of a 50-mile-per-hour speed limit on an expressway near a major city park.
This Saturday, more than a decade after the News published that letter, a driver exited the Scajaquada Expressway in similar fashion and struck a three-year-old boy, a five-year-old girl and their 32-year-old mother, who were all walking on Ring Road at the park. The three-year-old died. His sister survived – with serious injuries – and his mother suffered bumps and bruises. A day after the accident, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the Department of Transportation to reduce the speed limit to 30 miles per hour and add box rails to that portion of the park. On Monday morning, the city added its own temporary barriers.
Mayor Byron Brown, who was not in office in 2003, said this weekend he was not aware of any other incidents at Delaware Park. His spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the woman's claims from 2003 in The Buffalo News, so it's unclear if the Brown administration or the Buffalo Police Department have any record of this incident. In an email, the records officer for the department said "there are no records on file pertaining to this accident as we only store accident reports for a seven year period."
But 2 On Your Side found this letter buried at the end of an engineering firm's 2005 report about the Scajaquada, just one example of the community's repeated demands over the years for an overhaul of the expressway. This debate has lasted more than a decade – probably even longer – and Saturday's accident has reignited a long and complicated history between the Department of Transportation, City of Buffalo, nearby residents and other governmental agencies. According to the Department of Transportation's own documentation, the Delaware Park Steering Committee began discussing the possible conversion of the expressway as far back as the 1980s.
Bernhard Wagner, who lives in North Buffalo and has worked with the Parkside Community Association for 43 years, recalls first learning of the Scajaquada debate back in 2000. He served as a representative in some of the early stakeholder meetings with public officials, offering advice and observations as they collaborated to find a new design for the 198.
"The issue has now come to the forefront," Wagner said, "and unfortunately, we have to deal with that tragedy and hope that something can be moved forward."
When the firm Wendel Duchscherer released the Expanded Project Proposal in 2005, it outlined a series of possible alternatives for a new design and recommended a four-lane boulevard with a dramatically decreased speed limit. The firm identified a number of concerns about the expressway and produced an in-depth analysis of accident data. In the "visual environment" section, it even specifically mentioned that traffic "runs parallel and uncomfortably close to the Ring Road and path."
"A lot of good ideas came out," Wagner said, "but it was put on the back-burner."
Ted Graney, the Chairperson of the Delaware Park Steering Committee, also said he remembers joining this debate about 15 years ago. He's long supported the changes ordered this weekend by Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Brown.
"For sure, that's a start," Graney said. "But there's a bigger picture there. And there's bigger design drawings out there that really emphasize taking this and making it more of a parkway setting. That includes increasing the size of the median, putting in trees and plants, re-striping it so there's a bike line."
Following that 2005 report, the community tossed these ideas around for several years. In May 2007, stakeholders met to talk about reducing the speed limit and other design proposals. At the time, the Department of Transportation's documents indicated construction could tentatively begin by 2014 (Page 7).
As the years passed, though, the plans never quite materialized. State officials continued to meet with stakeholders, and by April 2011, it appeared construction might be able to start between 2016 and 2020 (Page 2). In 2014, Assemblyman Sean Ryan filed a petition to change the expressway into a parkway.
Shortly after the accident, Ryan renewed his demands. A spokesman in his office said that Assemblyman Ryan had informal talks with Gov. Cuomo's staff on Monday, and he will now meet with the Governor himself on Tuesday. The spokesman said in an email that the Assemblyman "was encouraged by their understanding of the issue."
On Monday, a NYSDOT spokesperson sent 2 On Your Side a statement from Acting Communications Director Jennifer Post.
"As you know, the NYSDOT has been evaluating public comments on a proposal to redesign the Scajaquada Expressway to a parkway-like roadway that better fits the context of the surrounding land use and that would better accommodate the needs of motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians," Post said in the statement. "Last year, the community asked that additional alternatives, including complete removal of the expressway through Delaware Park, be studied. We're completing those evaluations and the results will be presented to the public this summer."
In the short-term, Post said the NYSDOT will work with the City of Buffalo to ensure drivers follow the new speed limit.
At this time, it's unclear whether speed played a factor in the driver's accident this weekend. Police released him from custody and have not charged him at this time.
"Whether that speed is ultimately a factor or not, it really doesn't matter," Graney said. "This shines a light on what is really important about this expressway."