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McClatchy Muckrakers Expose Seedy Underbelly of the Highway Bonanza

The 46,000-mile interstate system was completed in 1991, costing a total of $216 billion (in 2012 dollars). Since then, these seven interstate highways - totaling 2,800 miles -- have been built at the cost of $45.4 billion. They were funded through Congressional earmarks. Graphic: McClatchy

The work of a sustainable transportation reporter can be a lonely lot. But it’s a lot less lonely now that two McClatchy reporters, Curtis Tate and Greg Gordon, have taken up the mantle of exposing wasteful road expansion.

With their far-reaching and well-researched three-part series, published last Sunday, Tate and Gordon brought stories of highway corruption and waste to a mainstream print audience. They spent four months researching the series, digging into 15 years of campaign finance records and interviewing leaders inside and outside of the transportation field.

“America’s highway system,” they wrote, “once a symbol of freedom and mobility envied the world over, is crumbling physically and financially, the potentially disastrous consequence of a politically driven road-building binge.”

Kentucky and South Carolina still gripped by highway madness

Tate is from the same hometown as Rep. Hal Rogers, the powerful Kentucky Republican who wields the gavel of the Appropriations Committee in the House. Tate couldn’t help but notice that Kentucky was using its federal formula funds to build Rogers’ pet project (I-66) while borrowing against future federal highway funds to do badly needed maintenance and repair work. The state has even used $4.2 million in interstate maintenance funds for I-66, despite the fact that the project didn’t meet the necessary criteria.

Meanwhile, although surrounding states have given up on their plans to create a new interstate, I-69, Kentucky charges forth. Rogers and Democratic Governor Steve Beshear “have received large contributions from road builders and highway engineers” but deny that these donations have influenced their zealous cheerleading for the project. Kentucky’s part of the new interstate will essentially stitch together three existing roads and slap the number 69 on them – meanwhile widening them to four-lane highways simply to meet interstate standards. Tate and Gordon said that their “examination of campaign finance data revealed a mutually beneficial relationship between Kentucky highway contractors and their local and state elected officials.”

But this story doesn’t end with Kentucky. The push to get I-73 built in South Carolina is just as unsavory (although it doesn’t end, as the Kentucky story does, with the former governor and 15 members of his administration getting indicted on corruption charges related to politicking in the transportation department).

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SF Mayor’s Advisor: “Let’s Be San Francisco and Take Down the Freeway”

The 280 freeway looking from Potrero Hill, where it divides the neighborhood from Mission Bay. Photo: Michael Patrick/Flickr

The idea of removing the northern section of Highway 280 near Mission Bay in San Francisco is gaining more traction as planners look for ideal ways to usher in high-speed rail and transit-oriented development in the city’s core.

At a forum held by the San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association last Thursday, Mayor Ed Lee’s transportation policy director, Gillian Gillett, sketched out a proposal to follow in the footsteps of the removals of the Embarcadero Freeway and a section of the Central Freeway, which revitalized the neighborhoods the roads used to divide. As Adina Levin at Green Caltrain reported, Gillett argued that replacing the elevated portion of I-280 with a street-level boulevard, from its current terminus at 4th and King Streets south to 16th Street, would improve the livability of the area, open up land to develop new neighborhoods, generate more tax revenue from real estate, and open up engineering solutions to facilitate the extension of Caltrain and CA High-Speed Rail to the planned Transbay Transit Center.

As past cases have shown, creating a surface street where that part of I-280 now stands and integrating it into the neighborhood would actually reduce overall car traffic. In a moment that would make the city’s mid-20th Century freeway protesters proud, Gillett told the crowd, “Let’s be San Francisco and take down the freeway.”

Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe called the proposal “an exciting opportunity to re-orient our city around sustainable public transportation and create a more walkable city.”

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Deferred, Not Defeated: Sheridan Teardown Advocates Move Ahead

In the wake of the city’s refusal to consider removing the Sheridan Expressway, advocates from the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance gathered last night at a town hall meeting to revise their game plan. Although the long-term vision of removing the highway lives on, the discussion focused on other potential improvements along the Sheridan corridor.

Community members talk about alternatives to highway removal at last night's town hall. Photo: Stephen Miller

“We started this campaign wanting a full removal of the Sheridan,” Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice Executive Director David Shuffler told the crowd of just under 100. “We’re at a different place now.”

“It’s off the table for now and the Alliance accepts that,” said Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool told Streetsblog. “These sorts of grand visions often take decades.”

With or without a highway removal, many community goals can still be achieved, including improved pedestrian safety and redevelopment to support business incubation and affordable housing. The Alliance has long advocated for new ramps from the Bruckner Expressway to the Hunts Point Produce Market to reduce the impact of truck traffic on surrounding neighborhoods, but also wants to ensure that local residents get better access to new waterfront parks along the Bronx River.

All the Alliance members — Mothers on the Move, Nos Quedamos, The Point Community Development Corporation, Sustainable South Bronx, the Pratt Center for Community Development, YMPJ and TSTC — were at last night’s meeting. Overall it was a young audience, with lots of turnout from teenagers involved in local community groups. ”I was a young person when I got involved in this work many years ago,” Shuffler told Streetsblog. ”What’s really critical is an inter-generational conversation. We engage their parents, as well.”

Participants broke into six groups to discuss how the area around the Sheridan Expressway can be improved without removing the freeway entirely. They looked at five zones along the corridor before reporting back to the entire meeting.

In addition to identifying opportunities for affordable housing, business incubators, and recreational space, participants discussed new approaches to reconnecting the areas that have been divided by the Sheridan, such as decking over sections of the highway instead of a complete teardown.

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Oklahoma City Council Fends Off Highway-Like Highway Replacement

When Oklahoma City announced plans in 1998 to tear down the I-40 Crosstown Expressway near downtown, they envisioned a grand, tree-lined, at-grade boulevard that would help improve development prospects in the already resurgent “Core to Shore” area between downtown and the Oklahoma River. The route would be part of the planned five-mile streetcar corridor, buttressed by a 40-acre “central park” fit for the capital, the largest city in the state.

But the state Department of Transportation had something different in mind. This spring, with the demolition of I-40 underway, city officials learned that ODOT was planning to replace much of the highway not with a picturesque boulevard, but with a partly elevated highway.

That plan did not sit well with some top-ranking city officials. The Oklahoman reported a few weeks ago that all eight City Council members have come out against ODOT’s proposal for an elevated roadway. ”You’re going to create the problem you set out to solve,” City Council Member Ed Shadid told Streetsblog. “A boulevard is by definition at grade.”

City planners' concept for the boulevard to replace Oklahoma City's I-40 Connector. Image: OKC.gov

Many businesspeople along the route are also disappointed. Gary Gregory, manager of the local branch of global real estate giant Collier International, told the Oklahoman: “There is a reason this area became blighted, and it’s the barrier that was built: the Crosstown Expressway.”

Yesterday, the City Council told the local public works department and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to go back to the drawing board. To their credit, ODOT is listening. The city and the state DOT have agreed to hire a private consultant to draw up alternatives that will make the road more bike- and pedestrian-friendly.

Steve Lackmeyer, a long-time reporter with the Oklahoman, described the situation as “a divide between traditional road design and modern urban planning.”

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When Livability Projects Meet Eisenhower-Era Design Standards

Tearing down highways, as New Haven, Connecticut is planning to do to a short section of Route 34, is a rare (though increasingly sought after) outcome in American transportation policy. Some highway removals are unintended consequences of neglect or disaster, like the collapse of New York’s Miller Highway and the damage caused to San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Others are planned interventions, like Milwaukee’s removal of the Park East Freeway. But the New Haven project is the first planned highway teardown to receive funding from the federal government, which awarded the project a TIGER grant in 2010.

Rendering of New Haven's "Downtown Crossing," a highway teardown that street safety advocates say could be much better. Photo: NYTimes

In many ways, transportation planning in the United States — which for decades has focused on adding more lanes to squeeze in more cars — has yet to catch up to this kind of project. What’s interesting is how the feds have funded an effort to turn a piece of infrastructure designed to move cars into a multi-modal, urban place, while at the same time requiring the replacement to operate much like a highway.

As Streetsblog reported earlier this year, the New Haven project, while a significant step forward, isn’t replacing the highway with a very pedestrian-friendly street. In the latest development, city officials dumped hard-won safety features — two pedestrian refuges nicknamed Porkchop Island and Meatloaf Island, for their shape – citing concerns that they would create hazardous conditions, which prompted local advocates to say the city has prioritized traffic over pedestrians and cyclists.

City officials responded that they have done everything they can to accommodate pedestrians within the framework provided by Connecticut DOT and the Federal Highway Administration. And in many ways the design does go beyond what is prescribed by the higher powers, namely the design manuals published by ConnDOT and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Because Route 34 is both part of the national highway system and a state highway, New Haven must get exemptions when departing from the standards in those guides.

To arrive at the current design, New Haven had to seek more than half a dozen waivers from ConnDOT and FHWA. They won approval from FHWA to narrow the travel lanes from 11 feet to 10 feet. They needed a waiver to eliminate 2-foot shoulders. They also won a waiver to reduce turning radii to make the road less highway-like and more pleasant for a stroll.

Then there were waivers from ConnDOT. The city needed waivers to do bike boxes, raised intersections, and pedestrian-only-phase signal timing, even though Connecticut has a state-wide complete streets policy.

New Haven officials said they received every waiver they applied for and that FHWA and ConnDOT had gone out of the way to accommodate them. The removal of the islands, they added, was a local call. But officials said there were regulatory and practical constraints in how far they could go for pedestrians and cyclists.

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With Teardown Off Table, Residents March Out of Sheridan Meeting in Protest

Protestors calling for the removal of the Sheridan Expressway walk across Bruckner Boulevard. This intersection is especially dangerous due to an on-ramp to the Sheridan. Photo: Noah Kazis

“I say my people! I got a story! We tell the TIGER team that this is our territory!”

Cheers supporting the removal of the Sheridan expressway rang out during a mile-long march from Hunts Point to a community meeting last night about the future of the Robert Moses-era highway, as roughly forty protestors chanted, clapped and whistled while parading down Southern Boulevard.

“Bloomberg, we pay our taxes! We want, our waterfront access!”

Photo: Noah Kazis

The same cheers broke out early in the meeting when three-quarters of the participants walked out in protest. The event was the first public forum since the city declared that it had ruled out removing the Sheridan before completing the full teardown study. Residents and community leaders wanted the opportunity to make their case for putting a teardown back on the table.

The Department of City Planning facilitators, however, refused to discuss the issue, saying that no city staff at the meeting were empowered to touch the topic that was supposed to be at the heart of the planning process. When they resumed their conversation about small-bore improvements to the neighborhoods surrounding the highway, it was to a room of mostly empty chairs.

The Bloomberg administration halted the study of the Sheridan teardown last month, declaring that the plan had a “fatal flaw”: more truck traffic on local streets. But the traffic analysis seems to have been killed before it ever really got going as a result of political pressure from distributors at the Hunts Point Produce Market. The analysis failed to look at ways to mitigate truck traffic, such as making it easier to turn from the George Washington Bridge to the Major Deegan. Rather than study how a teardown would affect trip choices, the city simply assumed that each and every trip taken on the Sheridan would continue to be made after the highway was removed.

Speaking on behalf of Congressman José Serrano, Anna Vincenty called the results “premature and not in keeping with the aims of a full study.” Serrano helped secure the TIGER grant that funded the Sheridan study, which was expected to examine a teardown in greater detail than the state DOT had previously been willing to do. “Our borough deserves a fair shot at reclaiming the land under the Sheridan,” said Vincenty.

In the meeting, Department of City Planning staff members, who are coordinating the study of the area, attempted to stay on the scheduled topic for the meeting — land use — and rebuff residents’ demands for a chance to revisit the Sheridan teardown decision. “There are actual opportunities to create change,” said Tawkiyah Jordan, the Sheridan study project manager.

But residents weren’t willing to let 11 years of activism for a Sheridan removal go for nought, nor did they accept a conversation that didn’t include the teardown. “I don’t own the Hunts Point Market,” said one meeting attendee. “If I did, or if I was a millionaire, this would be a different discussion.” After being told that the Sheridan wouldn’t be up for conversation during that meeting, most of the audience marched out.

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You Can Drive a Truck Through the Gaps in City’s Refusal to Remove Sheridan

The city told advocates that if the Sheridan Expressway is taken down, truckers heading to the Hunts Point market will end up on local streets instead of taking the Major Deegan, because of this difficult merge from the George Washington Bridge. However, if the lower level of the GWB was open to trucks, as it was before September 11, 2001, the merge onto the Deegan would be easier. Image: Department of City Planning

Last month, the Bloomberg administration unexpectedly ruled out the option of removing the Sheridan Expressway and replacing it with housing and parks, telling South Bronx advocates that added truck traffic projected for local streets was a “fatal flaw” in the highway teardown. After a closer look at that truck traffic analysis, however, the coalition calling for the highway removal says the city overlooked some obvious options to keep trucks off neighborhood streets.

When the city’s Sheridan team started meeting with South Bronx community groups last year, they indicated that the teardown decision would take a wide range of factors into account, like economic development and pollution reduction. But at a meeting with advocates on May 10, the city changed course and ruled out removing the highway based only on an analysis of truck traffic. The about-face came while the NYC Economic Development Corporation is negotiating a long-term contract with wholesale distributors at the Hunts Point Produce Market, which some trucks access via the Sheridan. As WNYC reported today, the market was opposed to the teardown, and city officials have indicated privately that the removal plan was a casualty of the negotiations.

Now the South Bronx River Watershed Alliance — the coalition that supports removing the Sheridan — is highlighting flaws in the truck traffic analysis and pressing the city to resume a full study of the teardown plan.”They have taken the worst-case traffic scenario and used it to justify dropping this alternative from further study,” said Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

The Sheridan teardown plan includes measures to keep truck traffic off residential streets — specifically, the construction of new ramps from the Bruckner Expressway to Oak Point Avenue, giving trucks a more direct route to the Hunts Point market. But the city asserted that under the teardown scenario, trucks would not switch from the Sheridan route to the Bruckner route. Here’s why advocates say that assumption is off-base.

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City Abruptly Rejects Sheridan Teardown; Serrano and Advocates Fight Back

The Bloomberg administration has abruptly ruled out the possibility of tearing down the lightly-trafficked Sheridan Expressway and replacing it with mixed-use development, jobs, and parks. Neighborhood advocates and electeds are vowing to fight the decision, which they say fails to follow through on the comprehensive analysis the city promised to conduct as part of a $1.5 million federal grant.

sheridan teardown

After receiving a $1.5 million federal grant to comprehensively study the potential to replace the Sheridan Expressway with development and parks, New York City suddenly rejected the teardown option based solely on a traffic analysis. Image of community vision for the decommissioned Sheridan: Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance

At a meeting with South Bronx community groups on May 10, city officials unexpectedly announced that they would no longer consider the teardown option, according to advocates who attended. Led by the Department of City Planning, the Sheridan study promised to produce a comprehensive analysis of how replacing the Sheridan with development, jobs, and parks stacks up against rehabbing the aging highway and letting it stay in place. Instead, say advocates, officials simply showed community members a cursory traffic analysis to justify the rejection of the teardown option.

Earlier meetings between the city’s Sheridan team and neighborhood advocates had been promising, indicating that the city would evaluate not just the traffic impacts of tearing down the highway, but also the economic, environmental and social benefits of replacing the highway with other uses. “We thought they would do a more comprehensive, thorough review, and they didn’t,” said Veronica Vanterpool, associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

The sudden shift came as the city was in the midst of a 90-day negotiating window with the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market Cooperative – wholesale food distributors operating out of the South Bronx — over a long-term contract. While lightly used compared to other highways (its route basically duplicates that of the Major Deegan, four miles west), the Sheridan is a primary route for trucks bound for the market, and the city’s Economic Development Corporation is keen to prevent the market from decamping to New Jersey.

The teardown was expected to marginally lengthen truck trips to Hunts Point, but would also include a number of measures to relieve bottlenecks in the local highway system, as well as new ramps providing direct truck access to the market from the Bruckner Expressway. Whether the market distributors would actually follow through on threats to move to the much more inconvenient side of the Hudson River is also highly questionable.

Advocates today demanded that the city put the teardown option back on the table. “The city’s study so far falls extremely short of the purpose of this grant and it cannot prematurely remove options from the table before completing the comprehensive analysis,” said Jessica Clemente, executive director of We Stay/Nos Quedamos. “Reconsidering the option to remove the Sheridan Expressway will help the city ensure that the Hunts Point market — and local economy — continues to thrive and South Bronx residents can enjoy a safer, more vibrant community.”

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Advocates Defend New Haven’s “Downtown Crossing” Highway Removal Plan

This is the city of New Haven's concept for Downtown Crossing, its plan for 11 acres of downtown land that will be cleared by the removal of the Route 34 Expressway. Photo: Downtowncrossingnewhaven.com

Earlier this week we ran a story about why local livable streets advocates with the New Haven Urban Design League are disappointed with the city’s decision to replace a section of grade-separated highway with a plan that remains, on balance, car-centric.

We soon heard from teardown proponents who remain supportive of the project. While acknowledging its shortcomings, Ryan Lynch of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign says the current project would be an important step forward for both New Haven and the state of Connecticut:

We agree that there is too much parking in the corridor, and the road remains too wide, but we have to disagree with the assertion that what is being proposed is only marginal improvement. This project, even in the first phase, will be implementing some of the most progressive transportation infrastructure in the state. Some of this infrastructure, to our knowledge, are firsts for the entire state of Connecticut, including the first ever bike boxes, separated cycle tracks, and raised intersections at particularly wide intersections.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Benton, a spokesperson for the city, took issue with some of the assertions from the Urban Design League, including the claim that the roadway replacing the highway will have no through streets. Phase I of the project — the phase that New Haven has collected about $30 million to build out — does not include side streets. Those are supposed to be built in Phase II, said Benton. Future phases are not yet funded, she allowed, but she said the city is committed to finishing them.

Benton said the city appreciates what advocates including the Urban Design League have proposed, but it’s the city’s responsibility to put forward something practical, as well as transformational. “I think it’s a testament to this project that they have been so engaged,” she said. “I don’t think their ideas are necessarily bad ideas. I think sometimes there a gap between feasible reality and what they would like to see.”

In other news about this project, Anstress Farwell, president of the Urban Design League, is traveling to Washington this week to speak with representatives of U.S. DOT about the organization’s concerns.

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Instead of Reclaiming a Despised Highway, New Haven Plans a Close Replica

The “most defacing scar from the 1960′s Urban Renewal era” — that’s how local advocates describe the Route 34 Expressway through downtown New Haven. Just about a year and a half ago, this small New England city won a TIGER grant to heal that scar. But another disfiguration may be growing in its place.

New Haven won federal support for its plan to tear down the Route 34 Expressway. But the city is on a course to build something similar in its place. Photo: CNU.org

The city’s plan to dismantle about one mile of the road in 2016 was sold as a way to open up 11 acres of downtown land to development and increase walkability and connectivity. But local advocates are sounding the alarm that it’s starting to look like 1960 all over again. Instead of reclaiming urban fabric from car infrastructure, New Haven is dangerously close to replacing one urban freeway with another urban freeway.

Last week an independent group called the New Haven Urban Design League issued a scathing, 30-page report titled “A Highway Rebuilt, Not Removed” [PDF]. In it, the League — one of the biggest proponents of the highway teardown — says the city of New Haven should scrap its current plans to build a partially grade-separated, limited access roadway and begin the process from scratch, with a public planning process.

“Essentially, the highway is being re-configured and re-built rather than removed,” the report states. “We don’t feel that $30 million in public funds … should be used to create a plan that fails.”

The problems with the existing plan are many, the League says. The plan contains two four-lane roads, less than a block apart — an “eight-lane monstrosity,” according to Norm Garrick, a transportation specialist at the University of Connecticut.

The plan doesn’t add any cross streets, negating any claims to improving the street grid. Furthermore, much of the new roadway design would be sunken below grade, portions of which the League claims could create an “even more formidable barrier to connectivity than the previous formation.”

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