How to Convert New York’s Urban Freeways

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner | Photo: @SBRWA/Twitter

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner | Photo: @SBRWA/Twitter

Non-profit leaders, agency employees, elected officials and their representatives came together in Albany this week to discuss the experience of four cities trying to convert urban freeways to more city-friendly boulevards.

The Urban Freeways to Boulevards Summit, co-hosted by the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance (SBRWA), of which Tri-State is a member, and Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, brought together the cities of Albany, New York, Rochester and Syracuse to talk about lessons learned and possible strategies for making urban freeway conversion projects a reality.

Assemblyman Crespo kicked off the meeting by talking about the importance of the urban freeway conversion project in his district – the Sheridan Expressway – to improve health, quality of life and the economic vitality of the area. He was followed by representatives from each of the four cities:

The discussion that followed covered several points centered on the idea that New York State needs a new paradigm for how transportation projects are planned and evaluated:

New York State needs a process or protocol for the conversion of underutilized urban freeways: Cities across the state are re-imagining existing transportation infrastructure and exploring the ways to address changing mobility needs, lack of green space, housing needs and economic development. Yet, despite five cities (Buffalo’s Skyway/Route 5 is also exploring a conversion) exploring the conversion of freeways to boulevards, there is no clear state guidance on how to proceed with a planning process, what data to gather, the funding commitments needed, nor the tools available. Participants expressed a desire to remain connected to other cities to share information and to have a strong partnership with regional and central DOTs to advance such concepts.

Linking Transportation with Economic Development Goals: A new paradigm is needed to evaluate transportation projects. These proposals should not be seen simply as transportation projects but as economic development projects that address transportation needs, environmental concerns, housing, business development, and health. Looking at economic development and state transportation policy in silos fails to address the myriad non-transportation benefits that these types of projects bring to communities. The multifaceted nature of these projects requires other agencies be involved, including economic development and health. In addition, integrating economic development and transportation policy goals help make these types of projects more competitive for limited federal and state dollars. New York State should also consider creating a development fund similar to the federal TIGER program that funds projects generating multiple benefits.

Planners need more design flexibility: The state transportation design manual currently focuses too greatly on highway-style planning, even if those roadways fall within central business districts or downtowns. The NYSDOT design manual must be updated to address 21st century planning realities and shifting demographic demands. Several participants also noted that NYSDOT had not endorsed NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide, which supports more multi-modal transportation planning, hampering such planning within municipalities.

Local stakeholders must be given a larger role: Many state elected officials care about these types of projects and should be involved in the process from the beginning. Regional DOTs should be given more resources, not only because the central NYSDOT staff has shrunk, but also because local units are much more informed about project intricacies. Local stakeholders must be involved and engaged. A grassroots push for positive changes can have a real impact on government agencies dealing with regional or statewide issues, but a state process and protocol must be developed first to ensure there’s a more consistent policy across the state.

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