Highway Removal Olympics: Who Will Win the Gold?

MTR readers may be surprised to learn that there are six serious proposals to remove urban highways in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

Though the size, location, and economic situation of the host cities varies, all the projects aim to remove highways that bisect urban life and redevelop them into, well, cities, with things like housing, streets, parks, and offices.

The six projects are the Sheridan Expressway in the South Bronx, Route 5 in Buffalo, I-81 in Syracuse, Route 29 in Trenton, Route 34 in New Haven, and I-84 in Hartford. Right now, all but Route 5 in Buffalo (which is under litigation) are in the study phase. This situation begs the question: which project will win the “Race to Removal” gold medal? Below MTR offers an update on each project, along with speculation about who will win.

A Pratt Center rendering of future development on the Sheridan footprint.

Swapping the Sheridan in the South Bronx

There is the long discussed plan to remove the Sheridan Expressway in the South Bronx and replace it with 28 acres of parks and housing. Advocacy by the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance, which includes Tri-State, Pratt Center, Sustainable South Bronx, Nos Quedamos, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice and Mothers on the Move, successfully inserted the community plan into NYSDOT’s study of ways to increase access to Hunts Point market. The study is now reviewing four alternatives, two of these would remove the Sheridan.

Will it win the gold? It’s possible, but the silver is more likely. This project is on a good track, and NYSDOT Commissioner Astrid Glynn could use the Sheridan’s removal to step up her smart growth game, which so far has been rather passive. Recent design changes, strong community backing, and a blossoming interest in smart growth statewide also bode well for the teardown plan. The project is not moving rapidly however. It was first conceived in the mid-’90s (see MTR #s 124 and 181); the first step in the environmental review process was in 2003, the full environmental review did not start until last summer, and NYSDOT officials have said the study will not be complete until 2010. In other words, it may succeed, but it will take a few more years.

Battling in Buffalo

After years of study, the NYS DOT recently began the construction phase of a project to keep the berm-style elevated Route 5 roadway instead of replacing it with an at-grade boulevard that would increase access to Lake Erie. In response, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, city council members, and recreation groups sued the agency in January, hoping to win modifications to the plan. The boulevard design, which would run from the Buffalo Skyway to Union Ship Canal, would open 77 acres for waterfront development and create the same number of jobs as the elevated alternative.

A billboard in Buffalo calls for the transformation of Route 5 into a boulevard

A billboard in Buffalo evokes a famous Ronald Reagan quote to call for the transformation of Route 5 into a boulevard.

Bizarrely, the first phase of construction involves knocking down part of the roadway only to rebuild it again at a taller height. Equally frustrating, according to Riverkeeper executive director Julie Barrett O’Neil, is that NYSDOT was supportive of the boulevard design until the very last minute. The group also notes in a press release that an elevated Route 5 would work against efforts to eventually remove the nearby Skyway. In December 2006, Congress for the New Urbanism, Center for Neighborhood Technology, and Smart Mobility studied traffic patterns along the corridor and found that its low traffic volumes could easily be accommodated on a surface street. For more on this project, see this excellent video and Riverkeeper’s website.

Will it win the gold? The project may not win the gold medal, but the staff of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper should receive one for their hard work and advocacy.

Studying in Syracuse

I-81 runs through downtown Syracuse, bisecting the city and prohibiting development

I-81 runs through downtown Syracuse, bisecting the city and prohibiting development.

The Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council commenced a study in April to investigate options for I-81, a elevated roadway that is reaching the end of its life. The multi-year study is being co-led by NYSDOT and will include three parts: a study of potential alternatives for I-81, a traffic modeling analysis, and a public participation process. The Onondaga Citizens League, a non-profit organization, is also conducting its own study to “think creatively” about the future of I-81, including the social, cultural, and economic impacts of various alternatives.

Will it win the gold?

Probably not. Like I-84 in Hartford (see below), the I-81 viaduct is part of the interstate highway system, raising the degree of difficulty for plans to remove the road or reroute traffic. Governmental timelines for the project are infinite; there is no completion date for any of the three studies. However, the Onondaga Citizens League’s study will be complete next spring and could help push the project along. Still, the group’s executive vice president, Sandra Barrett, predicts “a five to ten year process” before the roadway’s future is decided.

Trenton’s Tear Down

The City of Trenton released a Request for Proposals this past May for a market feasibility study of potential development along the Route 29 footprint. Route 29 runs along Trenton’s waterfront, and prohibits community access to the Delaware River. A boulevard design for the roadway has been studied by NJDOT for many years as part of its innovative “NJFIT” approach to connecting land use and transportation. The project has been split into two parts, one north of Calhoun to Sullivan Way and one south of Calhoun to Cass St. Only the southern study is moving forward and the market feasibility study is running about four months behind schedule; a consultant has not yet been selected.

Will it win the gold? Probably not, but the silver or bronze is very possible. The project has backing from the city and state, though disagreements remain about who will pay for the project. Another issue is the reduction in NJFIT program staff at NJDOT, and the agency’s focus on state-level financial problems (see TSTC’s report, “Trouble Ahead? Tracking NJDOT’s Priorities“). However, the results of the market feasibility study should help push the project along.

The Elm City Express

L-R: New Haven’s Oak Street neighborhood in the 1950s, the area in the 1970s after the construction of the Route 34 Connector, and today.

In New Haven, Mayor John DeStefano and community groups are working to remove Route 34, which bisects the city, recreate the street grid, and add housing and office opportunities. The project is now part of the Mayor’s larger, exciting vision to reconnect the city to the New Haven train station, and promote development nearby. The project is anticipated to cost to 100 million dollars and is now moving forward at a rapid pace.

Will it win the gold? This one looks like the front-runner. The project is being pushed by the mayor and has strong newspaper editorial board and community support (over 150 people attended Tri-State’s symposium on the issue in April). In fact, the City’s community planning process for the corridor’s redevelopment, which started in July, is expected to be finished in just eight months. The funding is not lined up yet, but cost estimates are not prohibitive and new leadership from ConnDOT Commissioner Joseph Marie bodes well for state support.

Finding Hartford’s Hub

Responding to news that the I-84 viaduct through Hartford will need to be replaced in 10-15 years, TSTC board member and Project for Public Spaces associate Toni Gold mobilized the Hub of Hartford group last year to study methods to reduce the roadway’s impact on the city. Though near-term maintenance projects are commencing, the Hub group, a coalition of citizens, and the local MPO, the Capital Region Council of Governments, are seeking a consultant to study alternatives such as bringing Interstate 84 to ground level, rerouting the highway around the city, or burying the highway.

Will it win the gold? Probably not. The study is meant to be long-term and an expressway of this size will be costly to bury or move. But stay tuned: the Hub of Hartford members have proved their ideas credible and their effort serious, so speedier timelines and broad backing by elected officials is likely.

That’s six urban highway removal projects in three states that are seriously being studied and pushed forward. And that doesn’t even include ideas to bury the Cross Bronx or Gowanus Expressways in NYC. Who do you think will win the gold?

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