Jun 19, 2013

Alternate Vision for Rails to Trails Project in North Buffalo is on the Right Track

A group of dedicated community members and young professionals have been hard at work in the University Heights, spending the last year crafting a proposal for a bike path along an abandoned rail corridor in North Buffalo (Check out this google map for an idea of the trail location). Running between Main Street at the LaSalle Metro Rail station to Kenmore Avenue, the path would connect and continue on through Tonawanda, linking the entire NFTA public transit system to the Canal along the same former rail corridor. This link provides a direct route from the suburbs to the Metro Rail that is entirely separated from vehicular traffic, excluding a few intersections.
Jacob Jordan, a UB Urban Planning student, got involved with the University Heights Collaborative (UHC), a not-for-profit community organization serving the residents of University Heights and the surrounding neighborhoods. “The first meeting I attended,” said Jordan “they were putting together committees to work on individual projects, such as an upcoming community garden, Linear Park, the Capen Garden Walk, and Rails-to-Trails. Back home (Dutchess County/Poughkeepsie, NY), they had just completed a bulk of the work on the new Dutchess County Rail Trail, which had completely changed the culture of the area. With relatively flat terrain and such a strong bike culture, I thought the benefits to Buffalo-Niagara could be ten-fold what they were to the Hudson Valley. I did some research, showed up to the Rails-to-Trails meeting with some preliminary property analysis and service maps, and we started working from there.” 

The Committee would explore the possibility of reviving the at the time forgotten plan to run a bike path down the former Erie/DL&W right-of-way, which had become increasingly important with Erie County's recent commitment to build their section from Kenmore Avenue to Tonawanda Creek.   

There seemed to be some hesitance on the City's part to work with the organization, given the community’s staunch opposition to a 2006 plan for commercial housing that saw the original plan tabled.  A group of residents were responsible for passing around a 1,100-signature petition back in 2006 to shut down a commercial development of the property, which ignored the Federal funding for the path in lieu of a $40 Million Dollar housing development.  

The remnants of this group put out a post earlier today and that petition was specifically aimed at the opposition of housing development on the vacant parcel and rather than the construction of the bike path.  These active citizens, along with the 30 foot right-of-way that NFTA must preserve under their National Trails System ("Rail-Banking") obligations (16 USC 1247 (d)) ultimately shut down the project, but in doing so they burned any bridges they had with the City Government. As a result, when UHC and their new Rails-to-Trails committee tried to move on anything, the City seemingly stonewalled them.  

Regardless, a separate interest group, recently formed under the name Queen City Rail Trails (QCRT), began surveying the site by GPS in order to record features such as wetlands, bird habitats, and even elicit landscape and household dumping.  By November, both the UHC and QCRT were confident that they knew more about every inch of the site than anyone in the City, and now had the data to support it.

The big change came in February, after the organization's general elections. Mickey Vertino, a retired corrections officer, local landlord, and long time resident of University Park was elected president of the organization, bringing with him his infectious optimism and enthusiasm.  Ultimately, the UHC’s Rails-to-Trails committee (also under the new leadership of Raymond Reichert, another long time University Park resident) and their persistence paid off. After talking with their councilwoman, Bonnie Russell, they secured a meeting with Mayor Brown and several other key players. The City, convinced by the group’s efforts and supportive after their thorough presentation at City Hall, began to explore the possibility of pursuing the project once again.

The two biggest things that convinced the City to continue ahead on this was the group’s willingness to cooperate and an online survey that showed a majority of the community was in favor of the path. Both the UHC’s general plan for the site and the Deputy Commissioner of Park’s plan were presented to and then opened for discussion, with representatives of the UHC and the City meeting half-way on a number of important issues.  After some slight alignment changes that would allow the project to be expanded on in the future and service a greater portion of the community directly, the final plan had taken shape and the City was on board.

Now, the University Heights Collaborative is mobilizing to get as many signatures on a petition and recently issued a new survey with a large number of respondents already. “Our community feels energized and sees the potential this project has to improve both the Heights and the entire City,” said Jordan.  “QCRT recently entered the Designing to Live Sustainably competition with a City-wide plan of bike paths and linear green spaces, and this very well could be the federally-funded first step to achieving that goal.”

When asked about the earlier post, Jordan stated that while some of the concerns were valid, much of the concern was regarding misinformation and the fear of the City revitalizing plans to build houses on the 30 acre site.  “They’re good people,” Jordan went on to say.  “We worked with John, Jim, and Dave for the bulk of this project, but when we finally got an audience with the Mayor, they didn’t like the plan the City put forth, nor did they approve of the modifications we appealed for.  City Hall has been incredibly helpful in this whole project, but that good relationship and the future of this project was based on collaboration.  We originally were pursuing along the whole rail line, but when we met with the City, we found out that in order to gain access to the CMAQ money, they had to match $266,000.” 

“In order to do this, they had to use money that they had slated for repairs to Minnesota Avenue Linear Park,” Jordan continued, “so when they suggested that the path run down that park in order to “kill two birds” with one stone, we didn’t find that unreasonable.  Mr. Hall and that contingent decided they were going to hold the Mayor and City Hall ransom by withholding vote until they got what they wanted.  Given that this money will expire in September and elections are in November, we could not support this kind of thinking. Ultimately, it’s the position of the University Heights community and most of the City that the $1.1 Million of CMAQ money will be of great benefit, with this investment in the Heights being far better than the alternative.” 

Jordan assured that the City of Buffalo and Watts Engineering are hard at work, entering into the necessary lease agreements with the NFTA (who owns the rail property) and ensuring that the money is secured by the September 30th deadline.  “And the best part is that this path could run right along side any future Light Rail development out of Lasalle,” Jordan said.  “We’re only limited by the 75 feet between the two old DL&W/Erie bridge abutments, which is plenty to run the 30 foot rail corridor and a 12 foot bike path safely.”        

If you’d like to take part in the survey distributed by Queen City Rail Trails, check it out by clicking here.  They have also worked with the UHC to develop a petition to support the project.  Contact them at queencityrailtrails@hotmail.com if you are interested in signing/gathering signatures.  


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