Highway To Boulevard Concept Comes of Age With Today's Joint HUD-DOT Announcement

Shift in Federal Emphasis Supports Efforts to Replace Elevated Highways with Walkable Surface Street

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October 20, 2010 -- Federal transportation funding underwent an important shift today with the awarding of $20 million in grants for projects in three cities that propose to replace elevated, urban highways with walkable boulevards. The awards for projects in New Orleans, New York City and New Haven (CT) were part of a joint announcement including both TIGER II grants from the US Department of Transportation and Community Challenge Planning Grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

While proponents of previous highway-to-boulevard conversions have often found at least some sources of federal funding to move their projects forward, the grants today are the first that specifically target transforming parts of our cities that have been hurt by elevated highways. $20 million out of the $668 million available – amounting to 3% -- is not an incredible amount given that the federal government incentivized urban freeway construction by covering 90% of the construction costs, this represents a significant change in how we invest in our communities.

Three Elevated Highways Recognized in CNU’s Freeways Without Futures List to Receive Valuable Infusion

The announcement represents a trifecta of sorts for CNU’s Freeways Without Futures list, which was released in 2009 and identified the ten freeways in the US with the most potential for conversion to boulevards. All three projects receiving HUD-DOT grants today were named on CNU’s list. They include:

The Claiborne Corridor Plan: Leveraging Infrastructure to Build Inter-parish Access and Equity, submitted by the City of New Orleans, was given $2 million in a HUD/DOT Community Challenge Planning Grant to study corridor challenges and design opportunities to reunite a physically divided community and create transportation choices. Recognizing that the elevated Interstate-10, or Claiborne expressway, presents a physical and symbolic barrier to achieving connectivity and revitalizing adjacent low-income neighborhoods, the city's coalition is committed to studying the feasibility of removing the elevated expressway.

The Claiborne Corridor Plan will also develop neighborhood and economic revitalization strategies and design strategies to address stormwater management, subsidence, multi-modal mobility, and urban design. It is their priority to leverage infrastructure investments in Claiborne Corridor in a way that ensures significant affordable housing investments and links existing neighborhoods to job centers.

The replacement of the elevated Claiborne Expressway with an urban boulevard is near and dear to CNU’s heart; earlier this year CNU joined forces with the Claiborne Avenue Improvement Coalition and commissioned a preliminary transportation analysis, Restoring Claiborne Avenue: Alternatives for the Future of Claiborne Avenue, with support from the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts. Concluding that removing the expressway would not have significant traffic impacts and used in the city’s planning grant submission, the report generated front-page news in New Orleans when it was released this July. Mayor Mitch Landrieu confirmed the same month that the idea of replacing the freeway deserved serious consideration. Learn more about the Claiborne Expressway here.

The New York City Department of Transportation was awarded a TIGER II planning grant for the Sheridan Expressway Corridor, to the tune of $1.5 million. The Sheridan Expressway has been hotly debated in recent years as the New York State Department of Transportation has swayed back and forth on whether a highway to boulevard conversion will work. The Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance (SBRWA) and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign have been leading the charge for a vision that supports the existing neighborhoods. The planning grant will be used for a technical analysis that examines alternatives to improve access and come to an informed position about how possible solutions will affect the community.

And, perhaps most exciting of all, is the $16 million in TIGER II capital dollars awarded to the City of New Haven to start Phase I of the removal of Route 34 from the downtown. The New Haven Downtown Crossing will replace the limited access Route 34 with two urban boulevards. Currently, the elevated road separates the Yale-New Haven Hospital complex and the city’s Union Station from the rest of downtown New Haven. The City of New Haven recognized that rebuilding the street connections will encourage non-motorized transportation and economic reinvestment in important downtown blocks.

These planning projects are models for other parts of the country. Many of our cities are struggling with what to do with aging highway infrastructure that often runs near some of the most valuable land in their regions. CNU’s Freeways Without Futures List identifies several more elevated highways that could use this type of planning.

While Highway to Boulevard conversions may seem like a foreign concept to some, there are a growing number of successful examples of removals that have rebuilt the fabric of our cities. From San Francisco’s famous Embarcadero and Octavia Boulevard projects to Milwaukee’s replacement of the Park East Freeway with a system of urban streets, city and states have saved money in the long run and gained revitalized neighborhoods in return.

Elevated highways are some of the most expensive road infrastructure projects we have to maintain. Replacing them with lower maintenance urban streets that serve all types of users -- and also support civic and economic activity -- is an essential way forward and federal support of this transformation is critical.