Unknown Stories of Western New York : The Buffalo Beltway

10:54 PM, Jul 25, 2013   |    comments
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  • This still vacant parcel behind the Eastern Hills Mall provides a clue as to what could have been
  • This diagram published in the August 1965 issue of Buffalo Magazine shows the proposed Outer Beltway and several other dreamed of expressways

BUFFALO, NY - For many a modern day motorist, their mere existence may pose somewhat of a mystery.

Two stubs of expressway, on opposite sides of the Buffalo metropolitan area.

To the north: the LaSalle Expressway, which begins at a junction with Interstate 190 in Niagara Falls, and continues for just 2.6 miles before it abruptly ends at Williams Road in Wheatfield.

Twenty two miles to the south, there exists the Milestrip Expressway (Rt.179) in Hamburg, which as an actual expressway only exists from Route 5, for about 1.5 miles before it becomes a multi lane arterial past New York State Thruway Exit 56.

On a map, they may even be perceived as "roads to nowhere".

That is, unless, someone envisions extending both of them, and linking them in an arc surrounding Buffalo.

That is precisely what was once envisioned, according to some retired transportation officials, in what was truly a different era.

"There was a plan to build another loop around the metropolitan area, similar to the 190-290 but a ways out," said Joe Tocke, who spent 38 years with the New York State Department of Transportation before retiring in the late 1990's.

The proposed Buffalo Outer Beltway would have been a 46-mile expressway loop, linking Niagara Falls to Hamburg, and running through areas of Wheatfield, Amherst, Clarence, Lancaster, and Orchard Park.

Plans for the 20 year, $400 million ($3 billion today adjusted for inflation) project were announced on August 18, 1965 at a luncheon of civic leaders at what was then the Statler Hilton Hotel.

At the time Tocke, who would eventually rise to become the DOT's regional planning chief, was just a few years into his career as a Junior Engineer.

Looking back now, the 74 year-old Tocke concedes he never really thought it would come to fruition.

"I thought it was just too much money, and just too pie in the sky," he said.

Indeed, the need for the Outer Beltway was based on lofty population projections, which figured that by the time it was to have been completed in 1985; metro Buffalo would be home to 2.2 million residents.

"As you well might know the population of Erie and Niagara Counties never approached that figure, so with fewer people, it really didn't meet the demand for such transportation facilities.

The beltway also fell victim to another chapter of that era's history. The so-called freeway revolt

"The enthusiasm and desire for expressways, not only in his region but in most urban regions, had dissipated," recalled Ed Small, who in 1973 was appointed as the first Director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Committee, a post he would hold for the next 25 years.

"Our group was formed because of mandates from the federal government, and a feeling that the locals weren't involved enough..rather than just being told what was going to happen... so they created this group in '73 and they wanted the local governments involved in the decision making, " Small said.

"State government in the earlier days was kind of autocratic," conceded Tocke regarding his former employer, while recalling the days of state figureheads such as Nelson Rockefeller and Robert Moses. "They were kind of like the king ...(acting) with authority," he said.

By the early 1970's local transportation officials began putting the brakes on several proposed expressways, not only the Outer Beltway, but others like the extension Twin City's Memorial Highway, which was supposed to be a full blown expressway linking I-290 and the Outer Beltway to the north while by plowing through the Tonawandas.

"Local people just felt they were being put upon... the impetus and political support for such a thing just wasn't going to be there anymore," recalled Small, with Tocke adding, "These things take up a huge amount of land and people didn't want to have them in their back yards."

Both concur however, that there was still a small glimmer of hope for the Outer Beltway being built. But that was dependent on the once envisioned construction of a domed stadium for the Buffalo Bills which had been proposed for Lancaster, but which also never came to pass.

"At that time we were looking at building a section of the belt roughly from Sheridan Drive down to the Aurora Expressway to take care of the traffic needs at the stadium," Tocke recalled.

"A stadium there would have supported the need for that kind of expressway," added Small. "But it kind of died a natural death although those first pieces had been built already."

The pieces he refers to are the only portions of the proposed Outer Beltway in existence today.

The Lasalle Expressway to the north, and the Milestrip Expressway to the south, with Tocke adding insight as to why those two potions were built.

"It was basically based on things that were going on at the time, like the urban renewal in downtown Niagara Falls. (Mayor) E. Dent Lackey pushed for that, feeling that at least we ought to get the expressway right of way in place before we start doing our urban renewal. In the south towns the idea was to secure at least the lanes there, because of the Ford stamping plant at Woodlawn. So the idea was, you know, at least we'll get the thing started, we can build something, and then we can get the land (in the middle) and development can continue on either side," Tocke said.

But the middle, never came. Although there are signs...if you know where to look.

"When the Eastern Hills Mall was planned, they actually reserved space to the east of it and I think they eventually used that as a (water) retention basin. But supposedly, that was going to be where this belt expressway was going to be built....I think you can still see it, " said Tocke.

Following his tip, we visited the place where today, somewhat surprisingly in an area mostly developed, a wide, rectangular, mile long swath of land remains, mostly covered by trees, the size of which indicates the largest of them are perhaps only 40 to 50 years old.

Ironically, a place that was supposed to be home to a concrete moat for passing cars, is now...a nature preserve

"So there and in perhaps a few other places , you can still see signs that there was some early consideration to setting aside some land to facilitate this thing in the future," said Tocke. "Little remnants of what could have been".

Or, as we like to call them, Unknown Stories of Western New York.

Click on the video player to watch our story from 2 On Your Side Reporter Dave McKinley and Photojournalist Bob Mancuso. Follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveMcKinley2 





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