In honor of the President’s new budget which cuts federal funding of the transportation budget by 13%, this week’s “Profile in Sustainability” is Mr. Jim Jones the town engineer for the Town of Tonawanda.
Town budgets must cover everything that goes into running the town; paying police, removing snow, paying paramedics, highway garbage collection, street lighting, throw in a good snow season and the budget starts looking very small. Their budget is generally too small just to do regular maintenance and somehow, they do that and a whole lot more. I learned, when interviewing Mr. Jones, that engineers can be quite creative. On top of the fact that Jim is responsible for dealing with roads and buildings that are approaching their expiration dates, he is also sneaking in solar farms and bike lanes. For those lucky enough to check out the Tonawanda Rail Trail, this beautiful bike and walking path runs from Main Street, behind the Metro Rail Station in the University District, all the way out to the Tonawanda leg of the Erie Canal dividing North Tonawanda and Regular Tonawanda. Jim is the Rockstar who shepherded the path.
Jim was brought up in an engineering world that paid homage to the car. He got a taste for engineering as a heavy equipment operator in the Army, then he went to U.B. for a degree in Civil Engineering and became an engineer for the town in 1989. He was officially appointed Town Engineer in 2010. When he’s doing his “Scotty” impression keeping the Enterprise working, he’s trying to figure out, with the Complete Streets Committee, how to make it possible for the average person to ride their bike more of the time. “These days, that’s how you draw people in, we’ve got a static housing stock, but making the road amenable to bikes is a quality of life thing that’s very attractive to younger families.” Jim believes traffic planning should be looked at holistically, “All the elements have to be looked at together, it’s like you can’t have beer without wings.”
Right now, the town is affordable, Jim says they want to maintain vibrancy while sort of positioning the community as a kind of “boutique community,” where there is affordable housing stock but a small town feel. “It’s getting tough to afford a house now in Buffalo, so we see this as an opportunity to differentiate from other suburbs because you have to drive everywhere in Amherst, Clarence or Cheektowaga,” Jim asserts. “You’re so close to Buffalo here, we really want to stay strong with our Tonawanda rail trail so we can maintain that transportation choice. We’re looking at the Riverbend Solar City folks, where are they going to live?” South Buffalo famously has extremely poor transportation options.
Jim makes a lot of sense when he talks about where people can live, “We’re at a point where there’s a lot of potential renewal infill right here. Don’t go out into a cow pasture like out in Clarence, Newstead or Wheatfield. Let those green fields stay green.” Jim is no hippy. He’s a straight-laced dignified man of a certain age. When you look at Jim, engineer, or maybe accountant looks like the stereotype. He has super bold ideas, truly a renaissance thinker and thank goodness because in this belt-tightening fiscal climate, that’s probably the kind of thinking we’re all going to need to do more.
There was a study conducted in NYC comparing ninth avenue and other avenues. Ninth with its protected bike lane, showed an average 47% whereas the other avenues saw an average 20% increase in economic activity. Jim translates that understanding to what bike lanes could do for Tonawanda, “There’s going to be a lot of subsidiary businesses that spin off from potential infill of these underutilized industrial spaces.”
When I asked Jim to dream a little for me, he apologized in advance for his crazy ideas. I told him, I love crazy ideas. Where the traffic piles up at the toll booths before/after the Grand Island Bridges, he suggests solar farms. Already, Mt. Landfill, which sits north of the 190 and west of the 290 at the interchange to Niagara Falls, is a great big grassy hill begging to make power. “It’s kind of a black eye to the town right now, it’s actually a black eye to the state. You have all your Canadian traffic that comes across from the Lewiston/Queenston Bridge. They’re going to the Bills Stadium or they’re going to Ellicottville to ski and they see all the oil refinery tanks, they hold their noses and try to get out of there as fast as possible. We proposed working with Noco to have all the tanks covered with art so at least it’s not so ugly. We can’t paint because there’s so much soot.”
Despite having to react quickly when funding becomes available and try to build infrastructure with a longer life-span, Jim does dream of putting the Bills Stadium on the site of the old Tonawanda Coke Plant. “We’re in step two of a brownfield study right now. We’re trying to get a handle on a baseline of what our brownfield struggles are. To us these are underutilized properties. Imagine what we could do if they put the Bills Stadium right on the river front, accessible by bike trail, metro.” The Tonawanda waterfront has a six-mile bend. Only 500 yards is publicly owned. Taking over the brownfield with a stadium could be a huge tourist draw and solve a lot of cosmetic issues.
The possibilities of bike infrastructure in Tonawanda really hit Jim when he was working on the North Buffalo/Tonawanda Bike Trail with interns from U.B. “I cut my teeth on moving cars. It’s all about level of service in moving the pedestrians and bicycles out of the way because they slow you down.” The trail was designated as a park, but a student asked why the trail didn’t have lighting on the Tonawanda side, like the Buffalo side. A light went on when Jim answered, “Well this is because this is a park facility and it’s dawn to dusk just like all the other parks it’s a recreational thing.” The student wanted to know, “What if somebody needs to use the trail to go to work?”
Jim had always felt that the car-centric attitude was wrong, but that’s how things were. Now he feels justified by the bike wave hitting the City of Buffalo, “That’s the mentality that we need to start out here because these paths are the new infrastructure. This is the new interstate for bicycles,” he insists that commuting to work is faster, cheaper and healthier.
Jim’s big dream is to make every bike trip easier so more people will do it. “When Buffalo gets their cycle track on Main Street that’s going to be huge for the downtown. Politicians are starting to realize this is business, this is the economy, this is the way that you can bring new life into everything. Anecdotally, we’re seeing the Tonawanda rail trail coming out on real estate fliers as a perk of home ownership in the area.”
In a pensive moment, Jim shared his feelings on the matter, “I’ve always biked, I like to walk and hike like outdoors. These newer engineers are starting to learn that cars are not the end all be all. You want to be able to live work and play in within 10 minutes of your house and not have to get in your car. You want to be able to have fresh food walk within 10 minutes instead of blowing gas and fumes.” Well Jim, good luck to you, can’t wait to see what you have planned for us next.