The massive new infrastructure bill proposed by President Joe Biden makes more than two trillion dollars available to remake the American infrastructure system — and Western New York stands to be appropriated billions. The federal government will fund 80% of transportation projects if the State funds the remaining 20% of the cost.
As Buffalo-based politicians in the State Legislature scramble to counterproductively thwart each other on the mistaken belief that they are scrambling for a limited pool of resources, Niagara Falls is in jeopardy of being left out. This is especially shocking when considering that Niagara Falls remains Western New York’s economic development strategy that offers the most robust opportunities for regional growth.
Congressman Brian Higgins and State Senator Tim Kennedy (who chairs the State Senate’s Transportation Committee) are pitching a new limited-access boulevard to accommodate Southtown commuters who are opposed to replacing the Skyway. That inland boulevard would enable the removal of the Skyway, an objective that both men have already supported publicly.
But Higgins is being roundly criticized by his constituents in Niagara Falls who are palpably disappointed in his lack of performance in Congress. They feel that the Congressman treats the City as an afterthought — while prioritizing dreaming Canalside projects with great showmanship. Activists want Niagara Falls to receive a significant share of the federal funding that will become available to correct historic mistakes that allocated massive swaths of our waterfront to automobile use alone.
Niagara Falls’ civic leaders fear that Higgins is dropping the ball when it comes to making this once-in-a-generation opportunity fruitful for our most international attraction.
To ensure that Niagara Falls gets its fair share of funding, Kennedy must secure the 20% State share of funding these projects. For Niagara Falls — which has huge infrastructure needs, hopes for $1 billion in roadwork, streetscapes, park expansion, and waterfront highway removal — it means a $200 million commitment from the State. With Kennedy serving as Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes serving as a Majority Leader, those funding levels are entirely plausible provided that they will provide the leadership
Many want the powerful pair to go even further and mirror some of the ambition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt‘s Works Progress Administration — which constructed new parks, schools, roads, bridges, airports, housing, libraries, courthouses, hospitals, sidewalks, waterworks, post-offices, museums, swimming pools, community centers, playgrounds, coliseums, markets, fairgrounds, tennis courts, zoos, botanical gardens, auditoriums, waterfronts, city halls, gyms, and university unions — much of which is still in use today.
New cultural institutions, venues, and attractions would have a catalytic economic impact in Niagara Falls because they would help lengthen the average visitor’s stay. Many in the business community believe that lengthening the 4-hour average stay to 8-to-12 hours will more than double the City’s needed hotel rooms during peak season — with the entire region broadly benefiting from increased visitor volumes, job creation, and local business growth.
That’s why Western New York’s business community wants another $1 billion in federal funding for tourism infrastructure and cultural attractions that will lengthen the average visitor stay, boost the region’s GDP, and cause a construction boom for new hotel rooms in the region. That would require the same 20% commitment from the State, and it would require that Assembly Majority Leader Peoples-Stokes uses her leverage in Albany to secure the funds, while Congressman Higgins makes sure that the federal infrastructure bill allows for that flexibility.
Here are some of Niagara Falls top public investment priorities:
Niagara Falls wants and needs its waterfront back.
Removing more of the Robert Moses Parkway — both from the rim of the Niagara Gorge and the banks of the Upper Niagara River — will make Niagara Falls a waterfront city again. Getting the City’s incoming traffic off the water’s edge and onto a new and vastly improved Buffalo Avenue will catalyze decades of brownfield reclamation and private sector development along this axis gateway to our region’s most iconic natural monument.
With the Robert Moses Parkway removed, imagine the vast riverfront that can be reclaimed for public park space — complete with busy bikeways, lushly landscaped trails, wild botanicals, viewing bluffs, and fishing piers.
Relocating the City’s sewage treatment plant farther from Downtown and the water would also open up new acreage for private sector development that reshapes how tourists engage with the City’s waterfront. Its location, at a critical crux of the entrance to the City, badly inhibits development.
The Niagara River deserves a spectacular Grand Island Bridge.
The Grand Island North Bridges are badly dated and their design poses a public safety risk to the trucks and passenger vehicles that cross them. The middle apex of the bridge’s roadway is positioned such that drivers cannot see vehicles that might be stopped just beyond its inflection point.
Beyond the public safety concerns, the bridge becomes an enormous traffic bottleneck during the summer tourist season, when the Thruway Authority often schedules summer-long road repairs.
The unsightly architecture feels stale and stuck in the past, while the geography of the river seems to demand more aspirational public architecture. They hope for signature architecture so unique that it is immediately recognized in the global consciousness.
Niagara Falls needs an extraordinary national stage.
Perhaps most obvious among all of the Cataract City’s voids is its lack of a large first-rate entertainment venue — the type that can accommodate top-notch sporting events, stage theatre, and traveling shows, and concerts.
A fully programable event center would grow tourism volume, attract more Canadian visitors, lengthen the average visitor stay, and (very importantly) it would generate tourism volume to the City during the long, cold, and difficult winter season.
Niagara cultural attractions should be world-renowned.
The Niagara Aquarium attracts more than 300,000 visitors every year — more than the Albright Knox’s 200,000 visitors. But it’s a small, outdated, uninspired venue that leaves visitors to the City unimpressed. The National Aquarium in Baltimore was constructed through an urban renewal program in 1981 at a cost of $21.3 million, which would cost $288 million in today’s dollars. A commitment at that scale could attract another two million Canadians to Niagara Falls every year.
The Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University should be relocated downtown and built in grand fashion with ambitious architecture that demands international attention. Think Frank Gehry‘s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. It would stand to attract millions of visitors every year, and would newly assert its relevance to global audiences. The Bilbao museum, which is widely credited for instigating a renaissance in that once-grimy city in northern Spain, was built in 1997 at a cost of $89 million, or $145 million in inflation-adjusted dollars.
The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s Kleinhans Music Hall officially opened in 1940 as a project of the Works Progress Administration at a cost of $1.3 million — or about $25 million adjusted for inflation. Its 2,400 seat venue has been well maintained and enjoys world-class acoustics. The organization is doing well under the leadership of Joanne Falletta. With a second concert hall in downtown Niagara Falls, the BPO could vastly expand its capacity to generate new revenues and become relevant to larger national and international audiences.
Naturalize the state park and improve access to the gorge.
Residents and environmentalists have been clamoring for decades that Niagara Falls State Park should be a more natural attraction, with less asphalt, fewer roadways, and no large-scale surface parking lots. Now is the time to remove the three vast surface parking lots that the State maintains inside of the park, and replace Goat Island’s vehicular roads with more natural dirt hiking trails. Further linking the State Park to the gorge with new pedestrian trails will be hugely influential in lengthening visitors’ say.