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Out of the Past: A former Hamburg mayor reflects on a real game changer

HAMBURG — The following guest “Out of the Past” column was submitted to The Sun by former Hamburg mayor John Thomas.

It all began, during the summer of 1999. The New York State Department of Transportation told the village of Hamburg that it was planning a total reconstruction of Route 62, which ran approximately 1.6 miles through the main business district of the village.

As a councilman and then mayor, I had wondered how government could help create a more vibrant business environment, since the village was competing with big box retailers and large malls, on the outer borders.

Village businesses came and went and it seemed that was the norm with close-knit communities across America. The plans the DOT displayed were typical: widen the road, put in left turn lanes and update traffic signals, burying utilities where possible.

The village had gone through that same process in 1995, on another state road and through another part of the village. The end result of the DOT’s plan did not make people feel confident. The problem was that we did not have any experience about reconstructing highways. The DOT was the expert.

What many people began to see was that the new 1999 plans were nothing but a bigger plan of a similar design that was not working. Traffic was caught at two and three light changes, and cars were unable to make left turns in due time. The widening and left turn lanes also created a safety concern for pedestrians wishing to cross at intersections. The village already had fatalities along the Route 62 corridor. Something different was needed.

I was invited to a fall 1999 meeting of the Partners for a Livable Western New York, a group that had the best interests for communities to have a high quality of life.

I listened, as members spoke of the same problems most communities were having. Dan Burden was mentioned as someone who had experience in working with communities and helping to create safer and more efficient traffic and pedestrian movement.

The problem was, time was running out. Who was this guy, anyway?

Shortly after those meetings, a brochure arrived on the mayor’s desk, offering a conference in Glens Falls, N.Y. Burden of Walkable Communities Inc. (www.walklive.org) was a featured speaker. The village administrator and I attended.

That conference proved to be worthwhile and we invited Burden to Hamburg, to walk the route with the DOT, citizens and business owners and give his expertise about the route. It was truly an eye-opener. Burden took the most difficult questions from DOT members and others and handled them beautifully.

His recommendation was to create four single-lane roundabouts throughout the corridor, eliminating four traffic lights, creating inset parking and curb bumpouts, adding safe pedestrian crosswalks and introducing other traffic calming elements.

“Safe zones” would be located halfway across the intersections, providing pedestrians with safer crossings. Other recommendations meshed with the DOT plans and planning began.

From Burden’s first visit in January 2002 until November 2003, the citizen committee worked on this plan and the DOT paid for Burden’s return to run forums, or charettes, to educate the public on a plan developed by the citizen committee, the DOT and Walkable Communities.
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