Highways for Habitats #21: I-40 Crosstown Expressway, Oklahoma City

Under the I-40

Under the I-40

Transportation planning is tough.  Roads have to serve a number of (sometimes competing) purposes.  Roads whose primary purpose is moving people and goods quickly through a community often have a detrimental effect on the communities they bisect (see: the history of freeways in Detroit).  Take state trunk lines for example, which you can recognize because they’re usually twice as wide to cross as the other roads in a neighborhood, and, of course, highways and interstates.  We’re currently running a series of posts featuring creative solutions from around the globe to make these roads – roads that must run through communities – also work to serve those communities.  Check out more about our inspiration here.

As our inspiration post notes, Michigan is currently in the midst of a major highway debate, and we are not alone.  In other towns and cities across the country and world, similar conversations are taking place about the future of our road systems and our neighborhoods.

The debate surrounding the I-40 Crosstown Expressway in Oklahoma City has been playing out for years.  In 1998, Oklahoma City announced intentions to tear down the I-40 Crosstown Expressway.  The Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) devised plans for the expressway’s demolition and replacement with a boulevard, and in 2012 – with demolition underway – the future plans were revealed for the first time to the city.  ODOT had devised a partially elevated six-lane road – what many see as essentially replacing the elevated highway with the same: another (partially) elevated highway.  Since the plan’s release, many residents and the city council have come together to prevent the plan from moving forward as designed.

I-40 runs between Oklahoma’s downtown and the Oklahoma River, through what is now the Core to Shore neighborhood.  In 2006 the city began a planning process to revitalize the area, which had been economically depressed for decades; some point to the previous blighted status as due to the construction of I-40 decades before.  Opponents of the partially elevated boulevard say the structure preserves the visual and physical disconnects of area.  Businesses that have moved into the area have also voiced opposition, feeling that their livelihood could benefit greatly if the highway becomes an attractive boulevard.

The issue led to a group of people forming Friends of a Better Boulevard (FBB) to proactively stand against the elevated road.  FBB proposes an at-grade boulevard and the reinstatement of the original street grid.  They believe an at-grade boulevard benefits alternative transit options, creating easier pedestrian and bicycle accessibility.  They have enlisted the help of professionals – urban planners and road engineers – and composed alternate proposal materials.  While FBB acknowledges that highway engineers’ main focus is moving people quickly and efficiently through a space, they advocate for a road that serves both automobiles and the surrounding communities.  As an ally to the city, they have made some progress.

First, they challenged the environmental analysis done by ODOT, which included all 3 components of plan – the I-40 teardown, partially elevated boulevard, and replacement highway nearby – and ODOT was required to do another study of only the proposed elevated boulevard option.  The aim is that the second study would be more comprehensive.

Then, in June 2013, due to efforts of FBB, the Federal Highway Administration ordered ODOT to add the street grid reconstruction alternative to the mix of solutions being considered to be analyzed.

Most recently, Oklahoma City told ODOT to go back to the drawing board.  The city and ODOT have agreed to hire a private consultant to draw up alternatives that will make the road more bike- and pedestrian-friendly.

Naturally, not everyone opposes the raised option. Supporters of the raised option believe that the at-grade boulevard option would create an excess of intersections and stoplights, causing delays.  In response, Friends of a Better Boulevard proposed roundabouts, which can keep traffic moving faster.  (You can read more about the benefits of roundabouts in one of our earlier posts about the roundabout capital of the U.S. )

One criticism of ODOT’s process is that their planning process was devoid of any public input.  Some believe that if they had engaged the affected communities, thereby understanding their hopes for the area, they would have avoided this issue completely.


Photo from Andy Callahan at ferret111 on flickr.com