Monday, November 3, 2014

Urban Freeway Removal: Lessons from Rochester

This article was originally published to LinkedIn on October 13, 2014.

As detours are set to be installed at the end of the month, the eastern portion of Rochester's Inner Loop expressway will soon be sealed off to traffic. This marks a monumental victory by city staff and urbanism advocates; the first physical step in erasing a figurative noose which has strangled neighborhood connectivity and walkability for multiple generations.

Sheridan Expressway - The Bronx
Photo Credit - Congress for the New Urbanism
Urban freeway removal is currently at the forefront of the national movement toward alternative transportation modes and improved connectivity. At the recent 2014 CNU Transportation Summit, Urban Highways and Social Justice were high on the agenda. Professor Eric Dumbaugh of Florida Atlantic University gave a stellar presentation on negotiating freeway removal for the greater good. His approach was very direct with respect to proving the case of necessity to a misinformed public and leadership, proving that existing traffic counts could be handled easily by the replacement surface boulevard in tandem with the diffusing effect of a reconnected street network. Some basic supporting statistics given during the talk posit that freeway removal results in overall traffic reduction of 11% (median) to 26% (mean).

Additionally, a large contingent of the congress was taken to the Bronx on the final day of the conference to tour the area surrounding the Sheridan Expressway. This one mile long connector between the Cross-Bronx Expressway and the Bruckner Expressway has long been the target of removal efforts by neighborhood organizations, community leaders, and statewide coalitions in order to implement community needs for affordable housing and economic development. One sees many parallels between this stretch of highway and Rochester's Inner Loop in terms of scale, traffic count, and neighborhood effects.

Once the case has successfully been made to local leadership for removal of a facility of this kind, external funding mechanisms must be put in place. In the case of Rochester and other similar mid-size cities, this generally requires a federal grant administered by the FHWA or the USDOT via their TIGER Grant Program. Further convincing of state-level officials is also necessary not only to improve the standing of the coalition requesting the grant (TIGER requires a minimum 20% local funding match), but also because the facility will likely need to be transferred from state DOT ownership. This last point can be daunting, but it can also represent a great advantage for the project due to nationwide fiscal constraints on state highway maintenance budgets.

Rochester Inner Loop
Photo Credit - City of Rochester
If there is one truism about this type of urban expressway built from 1950 to 1970, it is that they are either at or nearing the end of their intended design life. The brilliant approach pursued by City Engineer Jim McIntosh and his staff was one of convincing the New York DOT that both their short and long-term maintenance liabilities would be greatly eased through removal, rather than a piecemeal upkeep strategy. In Rochester's sunken expressway case, structurally deficient overpass bridges provide a key plank in this strategy. Two require replacement, with significant upkeep required for the third, by 2020 at a cost of more than $7 million. Pavement rehabilitation on the expressway proper would be expected to cost $4.8 million in that same time frame. Frontage roads have not been reconstructed in 50 years and are due for $11.9 million in improvements, involving 16,000 square feet of retaining walls. The bottom line is that more than $23 million would be required to address the deteriorating infrastructure. The total price tag for the project? $20,995,036 with the state contributing just $3,800,000 to rid themselves of that future unaffordable responsibility.

The strategy was ultimately successful, and on August 30, 2013 the $16.8M grant was awarded, ensuring that Rochester could take the first step in re-knitting its urban fabric which was ripped apart by legacy planning mistakes of an earlier era. Hopefully other agencies and stakeholders have taken note of Rochester's triumph and are able to find some strategic element applicable to their situation. The city maintains a significant archive of planning documentation at, including the original TIGER grant application. This and other documents stored there represent a fine resource for folks from the Bronx or elsewhere engaged in the effort to reshape our cities with people, rather than vehicle traffic, in mind.

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