Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Robert Moses Parkway Scoping Alternatives

Dear Editor,

While the six Niagara gorge parkway options revealed on 6 June by the scoping team hired by the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) generally appeared to respond to a variety of constituents and to cover an impressive range, there are several points that need to be made about the way they are being presented.

Since the Niagara Heritage Partnership first proposed total gorge parkway removal in 1997, we have continuously fought two perceptions formulated by the opposition and often repeated by the press in letters-to-the editor and by some politicians. The first of these is that total removal is an "extreme" notion. If we had a dollar for every time we, or the proposal, were referred to as "extreme," we could pay for removal and have money left over. The second is the idea that if the parkway were removed, then all the traffic that it carried would immediately shift to Lewiston Road.

As to the charge of being "extreme," we observe that's a subjective judgement. One person's extremist is another person's conservative. What could be more conservative than restoring our natural gorge rim legacy, an action that would not only save enormous sums in years to come, but has the potential to generate economic benefits for our region? Details supporting this view are to be found at www.niagaraheritage.org. We were disappointed, therefore, to find the proposal for total removal once again characterized as being "extreme," this time by a member of the scoping team, if he were accurately quoted, in a Sentinel article (11 June 2011) titled "Robert Moses Parkway concepts presented, analyzed, debated."

The video presentation of the options made it seem obvious, both verbally and visually, that the result of significant parkway removal would be that "traffic would then use Lewiston Road," as if there were no alternative routes. This is not at all obvious, which this study should have revealed. For the study not to reveal this is to make the scoping nothing more than an opinion poll based on incomplete information. We question, therefore, to what extent these biased perspectives influenced those who might have otherwise, if they'd been properly informed, chosen total removal as the preferred option.

The Niagara Heritage Partnership has in the past attempted to counter the "all-parkway-traffic-will-use-Lewiston Road" argument with the following four points of information: 1) highway removal studies from across the nation, if not around the world, have indicated that traffic patterns seldom follow the patterns predicted prior to removal, dire or otherwise; the tendencies are for drivers to fan out to use alternative routes, and 2) we do, indeed, have alternate routes here, though removal opponents refuse to acknowledge this, and 3) even, as unlikely as it is, if every single car currently using the parkway were to suddenly start to use Lewiston Road, the daily traffic count would still be less than half of the traffic count currently using Hyde Park Boulevard, another south-north route in Niagara Falls, and 4) NHP clearly provided the foundations of this information to the scoping team on 27 October 2010 in the document titled, "The Niagara Heritage Partnership Position Re RMP/Niagara Gorge Corridor Project: Meeting No. 4 for Representatives of Organized Groups." This is now available on the NHP website under Recent Postings. Why it was ignored is puzzling.

Now the "extreme" charge has been revived by those in favor of gorge parkway retention--as seen in a Sentinel article of 18 June, the issue immediately following the one in which the scoping team member characterized the total removal option as "extreme." In that extensive article, County Legislator Richard Soluri declared his motto for parkway retention: "Reject extremism and embrace reason," now the centerpiece of the parkway "Preservation" campaign. Soluri is the one, who at the Open House unveiling of the parkway options, sat behind the Parsons' sign-in table for an extended period of time, smiling and welcoming members of the public as they arrived as if he, long-time and well-known opponent of parkway removal, had arranged the event--or at the very least had an extremely close relationship with the consulting team...and that we all knew how this necessary charade was going to play out.

Unaccustomed to the brazen level of gall practiced by some on the Niagara Frontier, no member of the Parsons team, to my knowledge, suggested to Soluri that it was inappropriate for him to be sitting behind the table and asked him to remove himself.

Further, the options presented were bare-bones concepts without even rough dollar amounts assigned to each option. Could rough estimates have been provided? Even approximations that came within 3-5 million of the costs of each would have revealed that the total removal option is the only one where costs would have been paid for by eliminating maintenance expenses--and the only one with high potential for regional economic gains. Without this level of comparison, the total removal option suffers a disadvantage. (We realize "Construction costs" are part of "Next Steps," but to ask public opinion without at least ballpark numbers seems to be be out of order.) Additionally, the absence of narratives for each option crippled the judgements of those looking at what amounted to a series of map drawings--where was the information, for example, that every option with the exception of total removal would require annual maintenance expenditures of about a quarter million dollars?

The above paragraph cites serious shortcomings that must be put on the desk of OPRHP, whose acceptance of the process and comparison methodology must have been a final step prior to public presentation. Following are two other areas of concern: 1) The distribution of the "Comment" sheets present another troubling possibility: for the sake of clarification, must all votes or endorsements of specific options be made via only this avenue? If, for example, a person wrote and mailed in a brief statement in support of option # 6, would it be counted even though the person did not make use of a "Comment" sheet? 2) What is the target population for this option evaluation? It seems to us that a restricted "local" one does a disservice to a unique State Park that incorporates a natural feature--waterfalls and gorge-- known the world over. If merely local interests are allowed to decide its future, the risk is a parochial result.

The Niagara Heritage Partnership also questions the rationale for "Improve transportation" as part of the "Project Objectives." In what sense is that part of the OPRHP mission? We suggest that having "improve transportation" as an objective favors some variation of parkway retention and is, therefore, a built-in bias. We'd like to see "Restoration of natural landscapes without a parkway" on the "Project Objective" list. Is there any chance of that happening? Please help us out here.

From our perspective it's the responsibility of State Parks to live up to its stewardship mandate for the natural park environment here, to rise above and to resist the hare-brained schemes that are in conflict with that mandate. OPRHP should not be expected to, obligated to, coerced into, or otherwise persuaded to maintain a parkway, for example, that is in itself destructive, and at odds with their mission, because some mispercieve this road as the vital connection to other "attractions" in the region, at least one of which is also destructive of the natural environment--the jet boat, for example.

For what it's worth, I believe the use of the word "extreme" was an inadvertent, innocent usage by the scoping team member, who had no idea it was so loaded a term in this context. From our perspective the Parsons team conduct re this scoping has been honest, straightforward, professional, fair--all things good. But it is probable that the use of the word has harmed our advocacy, anyway, how severely, it is impossible to calculate. That cannot be called back, but some of the flawed process and direction of the scoping may be corrected, and we urge OPRHP to take the necesary steps to do so.

Bob Baxter
NHP Conservation Chair