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 be 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.
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President Obama visited New York this week to call on Congress to act on his five year transportation funding plan, which would increase federal spending beyond current levels by $23 billion per year — a 44 percent increase. As the Highway Trust Fund plunges towards insolvency and with Congress expected to drag its collective feet, the President’s push is great news.
As MTR highlighted in an earlier post, federal transportation investments see the greatest economic benefit if they are directed to metropolitan areas. President Obama’s visit presented an opportunity to highlight the infrastructure needs of a region in need of serious transportation upgrades.
Investing in the infrastructure of the tri-state region provides incredible bang for the nation’s buck. New York is by far the largest generator of gross domestic product in the country. Its GDP of $1.335 trillion in 2012 nearly equals the nation’s second and third largest metro areas (Los Angeles and Chicago) combined, and, if it were an independent nation, it would be the world’s 13th largest economy.
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As the Federal Highway Trust Fund inches closer to bankruptcy and the Obama Administration’s transportation funding plan remains a work in progress with MAP-21 expiring at the end of FY 2014, the reality remains that the nation’s infrastructure is in pretty bad shape.
With money tight and needs large, prioritization is key. But, unfortunately, that’s not how things get done in Washington. Once the gas tax and other funds are collected by the federal government, they are deposited in the Highway Trust Fund. The Fund is then split into the Highway Account and Mass Transit Account.
Source: National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, Final Report – Volume III: Section 4 – Public Sessions and Outreach Meetings/ transportationfortomorrow.com
This funding breakdown highlights that only a small percentage of the two largest transportation funding pots go to mass transit funding, a key component of mobility in large metro areas. Even less goes toward infrastructure for walking and biking — the kind of infrastructure that’s integral for creating livable cities where people want to live – even though recent data show that these transportation modes are gaining users while vehicle miles traveled declines or is steady. Once the funds are generated, they are then seemingly arbitrarily distributed throughout the country, with distribution breakdowns based on apparent but not actual need based criteria.
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News that the region’s transit ridership is growing coincided with a report this month that offers a sobering reminder of the challenges facing New York City’s critical infrastructure. In its latest report, Caution Ahead, the Center for an Urban Future reminds New York City residents, businesses and elected officials of the ugly truth: that New York City’s transportation infrastructure is old, and it needs help:
- 30.4 percent of NYC roads are in “fair” or “poor” condition, up from 15.7 percent in 2000
- 51 percent of highways are rated “fair” or “poor” in 2012 compared to 38 percent in 2008
- 162 of the City’s 1445 bridges – or 11 percent – were structurally deficient
Below ground, the situation is just as dire. New York’s subway is over 100 years old, and the equipment that allows for sequencing of trains isn’t much younger. This system of signals covers 728 miles, 269 of which have exceeded their 50-year useful life. New signals aren’t exactly as sexy an investment as something like new train cars would be, but they are critically important nonetheless. If you’ve ever wondered why some lines don’t have countdown clocks, and why some seem to run on time while others seem to be constantly delayed, these signals are invariably a contributing factor. The subway is so old that even the 13 repair shops built to service these signals and other subway equipment on average were built almost 90 years ago. Continuing to rely on these antiquated facilities simply makes maintaining equipment more costly.
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