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Will the Feds Support Rochester’s Downtown Highway Teardown?

Rochester's sunken Inner Loop Expressway completely encircles downtown. Now the city is poised to remove a portion of it. Image: Innovation Trail

It’s been called a “noose around the neck of downtown.” The Inner Loop in Rochester, New York — a regrettable 1960s-era sunken highway — completely encircles the city’s downtown, forming a wall between residential neighborhoods and the central business district.

The road is unsightly and impassable on foot, a huge barrier to walkability. And it doesn’t even see that much traffic: Some sections of the road carry less than 7,000 vehicles per day, a volume that could be easily supported by a regular, two-lane road.

One rendering of the proposed surface street to replace the Inner Loop East. Image: City of Rochester

The current city leadership is firmly committed to a $24 million plan to fill in and replace a stretch of the road called the Inner Loop East — about two-thirds of a mile — with an at-grade city street. It would open nine acres of city land to mixed-use, walkable development. The plan would improve safety and help support active transportation, officials say. The City Council voted last year to allocate $6 million in local funds for the project.

All Rochester needs now is federal matching funds, but that has proven difficult to accomplish. The city has twice tried, and failed, to win federal TIGER funds for the project. Rochester recently submitted its third TIGER grant application, seeking $18 million, and the city has Senator Chuck Schumer on their side, according to the Rochester Business Journal. Schumer recently met with new Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to try to persuade him that Rochester deserves the grant.

Meanwhile, the city is moving to finalize the design portion of the plan. Some versions even call for a two-way protected bike lane on the new surface street. If the funding comes through in the next few months, the demolition and reconstruction could begin as soon as next fall, the Business Journal reports.

Mayor Thomas Richards told the Business Journal that the highway removal could give this shrinking industrial city a much-needed boost.

“This project will benefit the entire city,” he said. “We are building a city that encourages walking, biking and enjoying the outdoor environment. Replacing this section of the Inner Loop will demonstrate the city’s commitment to fostering quality of life here in Rochester.”

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Highway Revolts Break Out Across the Midwest

The evolution of state and regional transportation agencies is painfully slow in places like Missouri and Ohio, where officials are plowing ahead with pricey highway projects conceived of decades ago. But plenty of Midwesterners have different ideas for the future of their communities, and they aren’t shy about speaking up.

Protesters picket outside the headquarters of the Southeast Michigan Regional Council of Governments against plans to spend $4 billion on two highway widenings. Image: Transit Riders Union

One after another, residents of major Midwestern cities have challenged highway projects in recent months. People in Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Oklahoma City have reached the conclusion that spending hundreds of millions of dollars on road widenings might not be in their communities’ best interests.

And it’s not just a few activists. Challenges have come from people like Council Member Ed Shadid in Oklahoma City, institutions like the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, and local governments like the city of Maplewood, just outside St. Louis.

Detroiters held signs outside a meeting of their regional planning agency earlier this month, picketing plans for $4 billion worth of highway expansion projects. Though the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments ultimately green-lighted the plans, members of the agency had to sit through two hours of negative public comments first. Not only was the public moved to speak out, so were the city of Detroit and the county of Washtenaw, which officially opposed the project.

And in Oklahoma City, the grassroots group Friends of a Better Boulevard has twice fought back state DOT plans to install a wide, highway-like boulevard in a developing area near the city’s downtown. As we reported this week, the FHWA recently intervened on the group’s behalf and forced ODOT to consider a proposal to restore the street grid instead of building a new road.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, environmental and civil rights groups may soon obtain a court injunction against a $1.7 billion interchange outside Milwaukee, on the grounds that project sponsors did not consider its potential impact on sprawl and transit-dependent communities. And in Cleveland, a few scrappy activists and the Sierra Club are opposing a $100-million-per-mile roadway that would displace 90 families on the city’s southeast side.

Now St. Louis has a highway battle on its hands. In many ways, this fight echoes the other protest movements. The South County Connector — like Cleveland’s “Opportunity Corridor” — is a “zombie” highway project. It was first conceived in 1957. The original concept was for an “inner belt expressway.” Its stated purpose is to “improve connectivity between south St. Louis County, the City of St. Louis, and central St. Louis County” and “improve access to Interstates 44, 64, 55, and 170.”

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St. Louis Punts on Highway Teardown, for Now

City to River's concept for an area near downtown St. Louis that is currently occupied by elevated freeway lanes. Image: City to River

For three years, grassroots advocates in St. Louis have been pressing for the removal of elevated portions of I-70 through downtown. This group of urbanists and architects, with little to no financial support, came together to make the case for highway removal.

Calling themselves City to River, the group built a website and a nonprofit organization and, over time, a pretty diverse coalition around the idea. They lined up support from residents and businesses along the corridor, as well as preservationists, park advocates, and local foundations.

A big victory came last year when the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis, a business group that is funding a comprehensive study of connections between downtown and the riverfront, insisted that the teardown concept be examined.

But advocates were dealt a blow this week when the planning firm Bernardin, Lochmueller and Associates, which conducting the study, announced it would not produce an in-depth analysis of the teardown that could lead to further action. Otis Williams of the St. Louis Development Corporation, which is overseeing the study, told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that consultants had not completed the overall access study by the deadline and would need some additional funding and another six months to complete it. Williams blamed the delay on the highway teardown concept. “We had to stop and have a discussion about that,” he said. The budget for the study, $90,000, was insufficient to properly evaluate the highway teardown as well as the other concerns, he said.

City to River’s Alex Ihnen said the move was shortsighted. “What they’re doing is eliminating conversation about this for 20 years,” he told the Post Dispatch. But Ihnen’s group hasn’t given up. They may seek funding to conduct their own study. Alternatively, he told Streetsblog, they may just work to keep the issue on a “slow boil” in the community’s consciousness until a political opportunity presents itself. Ihnen said urban officials are very focused on the redesign of the Gateway Arch Grounds on the riverfront at the moment.

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City Recommends Turning Sheridan Into Surface Road. Your Move, State DOT.

A model from the Department of City Planning shows the city's recommendation for converting the Sheridan Expressway to a surface road. Photo: Stephen Miller

Community activists in the South Bronx have been fighting a long time to remove the Sheridan Expressway, a short freeway that cuts off their neighborhoods from the Bronx River. After the state Department of Transportation rejected the teardown in 2010 and city agencies ruled it out  again last year, advocates trimmed their sails and worked for the best option short of complete removal. And last night, the effort to reimagine the Sheridan took a major step forward: The city’s study team officially recommended transforming the Sheridan Expressway to a surface road, opening up land for park access and new development.

The city’s multi-agency team, funded by a $1.5 million federal TIGER grant, included staff from the Department of City Planning, NYC DOT, and the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, along with the Economic Development Corporation. Now that the two-year study process is complete, the focus turns to the state — and the city’s next mayor — to turn the recommendations into reality.

The plan would direct truck traffic bound for the Hunts Point Produce Market off local streets and directly to the wholesale market via a surface-level Sheridan and new Bruckner Expressway ramps at Oak Point Avenue. Most of the recommendations were revealed in May in draft form, but there have been some tweaks in the month since.

On June 14, every member of the Bronx City Council delegation except James Vacca and Melissa Mark-Viverito signed on to a letter to Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert K. Steel, asking the city to add elements identified by the South Bronx River Watershed Alliance, the neighborhood coalition advocating for a teardown. The letter recommends new Oak Point ramps to and from the west, not just the east, which would lead more truckers to take the Bruckner, as well as closing the northbound ramp from the Sheridan Expressway to Westchester Avenue, which would improve neighborhood access to Concrete Plant Park. The city’s final report recommends exploring those ramp changes, but because the study period has concluded, the city will not perform a traffic analysis for those options, instead leaving that to the state.

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City Close to Recommending Surface Road Replacement for Sheridan

The city is close to recommending that the Sheridan Expressway, a short, sparsely-used interstate that community activists have targeted for removal for years, be transformed into a street-level roadway that opens land for new development and improves neighborhood access to parks along the Bronx River.

Today, trucks going to Hunts Point follow the solid red line on the highway, but follow the dashed line on local streets. The plan to convert a section of the Sheridan Expressway to a surface road would also add direct ramps from the Bruckner Expressway at the blue circle. Image: DCP

The news came Tuesday night at a public meeting attended by about 60 people, where staff from the Department of City Planning, the Department of Transportation, and the Economic Development Corporation fielded questions after unveiling the draft recommendations, which would narrow the road width from 210 feet to an estimated 115 feet, create three signalized intersections along a section of the Sheridan, and open up new sites for development.

The next morning, the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance held a press conference on an overpass above the Sheridan. “That is a good start,” Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice Executive Director David Shuffler said of the surface road proposal. “But we still feel that they have a lot more ways to go.”

The plan’s two major components come with cost estimates: DOT says that new ramps connecting Oak Point Avenue with the Bruckner Expressway would cost $72 million, while transforming a section of the Sheridan into a surface road would require $45 million. These cost estimates don’t include other recommendations, such as pedestrian access improvements and decking over a portion of the highway.

“Closing things is always cheaper than opening them,” DOT federal programs advisor Linda Bailey said, adding that the project team was trying to keep costs down in order to improve the likelihood of the project’s most important components becoming reality.

The Oak Point ramps, in combination with the closure of a ramp from the southbound Sheridan to Westchester Avenue, would re-route trucks accessing the Hunts Point Produce Market off local streets and directly to the industrial area. Advocates want ramps to and from the west, as well, but DOT only studied east-side ramps, which would serve traffic using the Sheridan and reduce the overall project cost by tens of millions of dollars. Another DOT cost-saving measure was to redesign the off-ramp from the westbound Bruckner; instead of flying over the expressway, it would connect directly to street level at Leggett Avenue.

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Sheridan Alternatives Offer Hope for Surface Road in Place of Expressway

One option under consideration for the Sheridan Expressway is to convert a section of the highway to much narrower road with some at-grade crossings at intersections. Image: DCP

While the city’s refusal to remove the Sheridan Expressway left South Bronx advocates frustrated, the fight to transform the under-used highway continues, with the city’s federally-funded planning study on track for completion in June. A presentation to community partners last week [PDF] shed new light on options the city is considering, offering some hope that the highway’s footprint could be drastically reduced, essentially becoming a surface road.

The presentation to the project’s community working group on March 7 was led by Tawkiyah Jordan, Sheridan Expressway project manager for the Department of City Planning, and Michael Marsico, assistant commissioner of modeling and data analysis at NYC DOT.

Four options were analyzed:

  • “No build” would not modify the existing street and expressway network;
  • “Retain” keeps the Sheridan Expressway as-is but adds direct ramps from Oak Point Avenue in Hunts Point to the Bruckner Expressway;
  • “Modify-Separated” converts the Sheridan to a street-level boulevard, while also retaining the parallel West Farms Road and adding the Oak Point ramps;
  • “Modify-Combined” merges the Sheridan with West Farms Road, creating a single street-level boulevard, while also adding the Oak Point ramps.

Prior to last week’s meeting, the city said only that it was considering an undefined “modify” scenario, along with “no build” and “retain.” Splitting the “modify” option into the “separated” and “combined” alternatives is a big step forward. Both would significantly alter the Sheridan between Westchester Avenue and the the Cross Bronx Expressway, leaving the southern section near Concrete Plant Park, which is adjacent to an Amtrak rail corridor, mostly untouched.

The two modify scenarios would also provide space for new development and bring pedestrian crossings to street level. Under the “separated” scenario, the road right-of-way would be narrowed from the existing 210 feet to approximately 155 feet; under the “combined” option, it would be reduced further to an estimated 115 feet.

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State Officials OK Niagara Falls Highway Teardown

Beginning at Niagara Falls State Park, you can hike around the great gorge carved out of the base of the falls over thousands of years. But you’d best arrive in a car.

The section of Robert Moses Parkway separating the town of Niagara Falls from its stunning gorge will be torn down. Image: K Construction Zone

If you want to access this area from Niagara Falls neighborhoods on foot, you have to climb fences, scale embankments and race across a four-lane expressway — the aptly named Robert Moses Parkway.

In as little as three years’ time, however, this struggling town will be reconnected with the natural asset that serves as the basis for its economy. State park officials gave the thumbs-up last week to a plan to tear down a two-mile section of the Robert Moses Parkway, stretching from near downtown Niagara Falls to the town’s northern neighborhoods, and possibly further, The Buffalo News reports.

Local residents have been pleading for the teardown for years, and Senator Chuck Schumer recently came out in support of the idea. The town, which has suffered disinvestment and population loss while its Canadian counterpart thrives, hopes the expansion of the park will help spur more eco-tourism. The paper reports that the state plans to replace the segment with “native plantings and a multi-use nature trail that could feature hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, horseback riding and even zip-lining.” It also seems likely that the highway removal will increase property values and investment in the surrounding residential neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the debate continues about the fate of another stretch of freeway from the city’s northern neighborhoods to the suburb of Lewiston. The Buffalo News reports that environmentalists are fighting to convert that portion back into forestland while the local state senator wants to turn it into a two-lane park road, matching the one in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

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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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