FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: December 12, 2011
SCHUMER CALLS ON FEDS TO ‘FAST-TRACK’ DEMOLITION OF PORTION OF ROBERT MOSES PARKWAY THAT ACTS LIKE A BERLIN WALL BLOCKING REVITALIZATION OF DOWNTOWN NIAGARA FALLS
After 6 Years of Planning, The State is Submitting Preliminary Design, Schumer Urges Feds to Move Quickly On Final Design So Federal Dollars Can Flow To Project
Project, Expected To Cost $15 Million, Would Link Downtown Niagara Falls With Niagara Falls State Park – Federal Department of Transportation Recently Created “Fast-Track Process” To Speed Up Major Infrastructure Projects
Schumer: Tear Down This Road
Today, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer called on the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) to fast-track the demolition of the Southern portion of Robert Moses Parkway. Schumer announced his support for the effort to remove the southern portion of the Parkway, creating pedestrian access between the City’s downtown and the waterfront park, and sparking economic growth in downtown Niagara Falls. The DOT recently created a “Transportation Rapid Response Team” that helps to improve coordination between governmental agencies and speed up permitting and design processes for job-creating transportation infrastructure projects. Given the multi-year delays and lack of coordination at all levels of government that have kept the demolition project from moving forward, Schumer is urging Transportation Secretary LaHood to make the Robert Moses Parkway demolition a “fast-track” project. The designation would speed up the Federal Highway Administration’s approval of the State’s design for the Parkway, which should be submitted for review shortly. Designating the Parkway as a Fast Track project would help ensure that inter-governmental disputes and typical bureaucratic red tape don’t add additional delays to a process that has already taken far too long.
“For years, this project that would help transform downtown Niagara Falls has been stuck in the mud,” said Schumer. “Enough is enough; we must tear down this road. We’re finally nearing the end of the design phase, but more bureaucratic traps lie ahead. This is no ordinary project, and we can’t go about it in a business-as-usual way. When the federal DOT gets this design shortly, they need to fast track this problem so we can get it to the finish line as quickly as possible. Lowering the Parkway would connect downtown with the majestic views of the waterfront park, pumping new life into Niagara Falls. We absolutely have to get this done.”
Built over 50 years ago, the Robert Moses Parkway today stands as a barrier that blocks access from downtown to the Niagara Falls State Park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. For years, local officials have pushed to demolish the parkway from the John Daly Boulevard interchange to Main Street and create pedestrian access that would link the waterfront with downtown Niagara Falls. While the city draws approximately 8 million tourists a year, the design of the Parkway prevents the city from taking full advantage of its proximity to the waterfront. Lowering the parkway would open nearly 40 acres of land in City neighborhoods to the waterfront. This land includes dozens of households, commercial properties, and vacant properties waiting to be developed. Schumer said creating the waterfront link should boost housing values, provide a shot in the arm for existing businesses, and attract new businesses to Niagara Falls, helping to fill in vacant properties. Specifically, the 2009 City of Niagara Falls Master Plan found that removing barriers could generate increases in the hundreds of new hotel rooms, massive investments in new retail space, and tens of millions of dollars in new spending activity in the community. The Plan also found that the project could increase property values in surrounding neighborhoods by the millions of dollars.
For the past five years, the project has been in a scoping phase in which local leaders and community members have presented options for the redesign of the new Parkway, and discussed how to complete the project in a way that boosts the downtown economy. State Park and Transportation officials are nearing the end of this review, and expect to submit an initial design to the Federal Highway Administration for approval soon. Before bidding and construction can begin the Federal Highway Administration must work with a host of other federal agencies to review the initial design, and make changes and adjustments to produce a final design. These design review and permit approval phases could slow down the project down even further, adding months or years to a project that is already overdue.
The state has committed $5 million for the final project through the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program. The project will also be eligible for federal transportation funding to cover the remaining expenses of construction, after the Federal Highways Administration has completed its review and approved the final design. In an effort to ensure that the project does not experience delays during the design review phase, Schumer is pushing to have the federal DOT fast-track the project. The federal government will play a significant role in the Parkway removal process from the conclusion of the scoping until construction is complete. Designs and construction plans require a full review to ensure that they comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other federal laws. The Federal Highways Administration will obligate construction funding and is tasked with reimbursements for construction work. Given that the Project is currently using Federal transportation funds, the FHWA has and would continue to have the overall authority and responsibility for implementing and monitoring compliance with Federal laws, regulations and executive orders.
In October, the federal Department of Transportation announced the creation of a transportation rapid response team designed to “fast-track” job-creating transportation infrastructure projects. The team consists of senior staff from 10 federal agencies with jurisdiction over various parts of construction projects including the Council on Environmental Quality, DOT, Office of Management and Budget, National Economic Council, Department of Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Commerce, and Homeland Security. When a project, like the Tappan Zee Bridge in the Hudson Valley, is designated for the “fast-track,” the team takes a series of steps to ensure that the project is completed without unnecessary delays. The team prioritizes the review of project designs, permit approvals, and other consultations and interactions with federal agencies. When a project runs into a bureaucratic wall, the problem is raised to senior decision makers within the agencies in order to quickly resolve disputes and solve problems. The team also focuses on ensuring continued communication between governmental agencies to ensure that projects aren’t delayed by agencies failing to work well together.
Given the importance of the project to the revitalization of Niagara Falls’ downtown and the long delays that have already held up this project, Schumer believes the removal of the Parkway should be placed on the federal government’s fast-track list. Helping this project avoid bureaucratic red tape and pitfalls would accelerate the economic development of Niagara Falls and provide a boost to local businesses.
“The trail of red tape has to end,” continued Schumer. “We’re going to put the full court press on to finally knock down this barrier that’s standing in the way of Niagara Falls’ growth.”
Schumer’s letter to Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood appears below:
Dear Secretary LaHood,
I write to commend your efforts in establishing a new “fast track process” for vital infrastructure projects across the country and ask that you consider including the long-stalled Robert Moses Parkway project in President Obama’s effort to expedite job-creating construction projects. As you may know, the City of Niagara Falls has long suffered from misguided urban planning decisions of the past, which has precluded new economic development strategies from moving forward. The Robert Moses parkway, in particular, is both literally and figuratively a modern-day impediment to reviving the local economy in Niagara Falls, which should be thriving from tourism to one of America’s great natural treasures. A raised highway constructed over 50 years ago that cuts through the City, the Robert Moses Parkway blocks pedestrian access from the City’s downtown to the great waterfront views of the Niagara Falls State Park. In order to give a shot-in-the-arm to the local economy of Niagara Falls, the newly-created Transportation Rapid Response Team should work across federal and state agencies to make this demolition and reconstruction project of Robert Moses parkway a reality.
Despite a significant amount of local support from elected officials and businesses to remove the Southern portion of the Robert Moses Parkway and replace it with a pedestrian friendly, grade-level roadway, the project has been mired in the planning phase for nearly six years. The project was included in the City’s comprehensive plan in 2004 and a series of public scoping sessions in 2006, but it has yet to move into the Final Design and Build phase. This transformative plan, originally scheduled to be completed in 2010, could allow for the removal of a one-mile stretch of the obstructive raised highway from the John Daly Boulevard interchange to Prospect Street along the Upper Niagara River rapids. It is our understanding that the Federal Highway Administration – the original funder of the scoping and planning phase – will soon be in receipt of preliminary design reports needed for federal approval from New York State. Once this is received, I respectfully request that the Transportation Rapid Response Team respond with the interagency leadership and urgency needed to get this project moving towards the finish line. As you probably know, the efforts of this team to date with respect to the rehabilitation of the Tappan Zee bridge has been a real game-changer in getting that important New York infrastructure project in line for construction to begin much sooner than originally conceived. I am confident that if the same effort is applied to the Robert Moses parkway project, the elected leaders and merchants of downtown Niagara Falls could begin to reconnect their City corridors to its pristine waterfront asset. This is important for so many reasons, but let me outline a few of them.
First, recent studies have shown that Niagara Falls has yet to capitalize on the fact that they are one of the single largest attractions in New York State and the country with over 8 million visits from tourists per year. Despite this reality, City assessments have shown that they have an inordinate number of hotel inventory in the “economy” and “independent” grades and that the City is largely “underrestauranted” compared to their visitation numbers. The conclusion City planners have come to is that despite the massive number of visitors the Niagara Falls park receives each year, tourists are not connecting to the City’s downtown even though the waterfront is within walking distance. Re-connecting the City and the waterfront, therefore, could spur activity in the downtown and attract new restaurants, hotels, and shops to Niagara Falls.
Second, over the past few years, the City has embraced these findings and begun a vibrant process of incorporating tourism as a key economic growth strategy into City planning. For many years, the City relied on manufacturing as a driver of jobs and economic growth. As many of those industries left the City over the past four decades, it increased the stock of vacant buildings and brownfields and led to a population decrease. In order to stimulate demand for those properties and other available spaces to be re-utilized, as well as draw a younger stock of workers and residents into Niagara Falls, the downtown will need to capitalize on the tourism to the Park. Specifically, the 2009 City of Niagara Falls Master Plan found that removing barriers could generate increases in the hundreds of new hotel rooms, massive investments in new retail space, and tens of millions of dollars in new spending activity in the community. The Plan also found that the project could increase property values in surrounding neighborhoods by the millions of dollars. Therefore, the City administration and local business leaders have made tourism a crucial part of its long-term plan to drive private investment into the City. Again, the best way to do this in the short-term is create new pedestrian arteries to the Falls.
Third, New York State has programmed this project into their Statewide Transportation Improvement plan. As you know, local buy-in for major reconstruction of federal highways is a crucial aspect to moving forward. As soon as this project moves to the final phase, it could be eligible for federal highway funds as well, providing a leveraged federal investment that stretches taxpayer dollars further and in a good use.
In closing, I would like to reiterate that I am confident in the Response Team’s ability to drive this project to the finish line. Clearly, the table has been set and the pieces are in place to make the City’s vision a reality. As I have outlined here, the time is now to capitalize on the City’s greatest asset in order to create jobs and promote economic growth for the residents of Niagara Falls and Western New York.
Charles E. Schumer