2012 Freeways Without Futures revisited
Note: This article appears in the October-November 2012 issue of Better! Cities & Towns.
The Congress for the New Urbanism argues that urban freeways can be removed or repurposed to better serve cities and their residents. Successful highway-to-boulevard conversions — in cities from Seoul, South Korea, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin — reconnect neighborhoods, improve access to key resources such as waterfronts, and put underperforming land to use. Urban freeway removals are no longer isolated instances of success; freeway removal is now a transformative movement in American transportation policy.
It’s been six months since CNU released the 2012 Freeways Without Futures list. During that time, Mayor Bloomberg has lamentably denied New York City’s public an honest conversation about the Sheridan Expressway removal alternative, and the City of New Orleans has made slow progress with its analysis of the Claiborne Overpass and its corridor. While CNU continues to work closely with advocates in both of the above cities, dozens of projects have been added to the CNU North American freeways database, and CNU has been approached by advocates pressing for freeway removal in their hometowns in 26 locales.
Through continued outreach and advocacy, the additional projects have been identified worthy of the Freeways Without Futures moniker:
McGrath Highway, Somerville, MA
Since 1928, the McGrath Highway, between the Charles and Mystic Rivers in Boston, has increased motorists’ travel speed, to the detriment of all other modes. When the McGrath Overpass portion was elevated in the ‘50s, its effects on the surrounding neighborhoods were nearly immediate. The overpass physically separates East Somerville neighborhoods, and impedes crossing by both pedestrians and vehicles struggling to get through confusing intersections beneath the elevated structure from Somerville Avenue to Highland Avenue. Largely in response to its declining condition and residents’ concerns about the overpass’ affect on health, traffic and livability, Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) conducted a study regarding the future of McGrath.
Traffic on the McGrath has decreased fifteen percent in the last decade and is expected to decline further with the extension of Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority’s Green Line. Right now, current traffic counts on the elevated McGrath are comparable to the walkable, mixed-use Massachusetts Avenue. The LivableStreets Alliance is advocating for the removal of McGrath as a highway, but MassDOT will continue to spend up to $11 million in repairs before the state will seriously consider removing McGrath in 2022. Boston has already made the decision to replace another overpass in the region: Jamaica Plain’s Casey Overpass, which disrupts Fredrick Law-Olmstead’s jewel-like city parks. With its existing community support and the right political vision, Somerville will not be far behind.
Robert Moses Parkway, niagara Falls, NY
Stretching approximately 18 miles along the Niagara Gorge rim, the Robert Moses Parkway stands as a barrier between Niagara Falls and its tremendous natural asset. It’s also standing in the way of increased ecotourism and restored parkland. Initially conceived to service industries along the waterfront, the parkway is now underutilized and expensive to maintain. The parkway’s declining traffic counts prompted the closure of two of the four lanes. The non-profit organization Wild Ones, the Niagara River Greenway Commission, and the City of Niagara Falls have studied the northern section for full removal and ecological restoration.
Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster has shown considerable vision and leadership in guiding his city toward re-conceptualizing the value of Niagara Falls’ street grid and its parkland. Meanwhile, Senator Charles Schumer has also thrown his support behind an alternatives analysis of the southern section of the roadway by the State’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. The rich possibilities for restoring parkland, boosting ecotourism, and reconnecting the community to its waterfront hold promise for Niagara Falls and the region.
Terminal Island Freeway, Long Beach, CA
Since 2009, community advocates have dreamed of converting the little-used Terminal Island Freeway into a local street and parkland. The freeway serves port freight traffic with no connections to surrounding freeways. With this tremendous amount of underutilized right-of-way available to the City of Long Beach, advocates are now arguing that their dreams can become a reality.
Under CalTrans’ Transportation Planning Grant Program, the Long Beach City Council applied for a grant to study the freeway’s removal and conversion into local street connections and parks. Streetsblog has called the proposal “the largest freeway removal project in Southern California history.”