Highways for Habitats #28: Inner Loop East, Rochester New York

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.

One such debate recently ended.  The Inner Loop is a freeway constructed between 1950 and 1965 as a continuous loop that surrounds downtown Rochester, New York’s Central Business District.  Since its completion traffic on the Inner Loop overall has declined.  After over two decades of debate, the fate of Inner Loop East has been decided.  With the award of a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Grant from the Federal Government in August, the Inner Loop East Reconstruction Project now has the construction funds it needs to move forward.  This is the third time the City of Rochester has applied for the grant, and the $17.7 million is secured at last.

The Inner Loop East, which is two-thirds of a mile of the Inner Loop from Monroe Avenue to Charlotte Street, will be filled in to create a “complete” boulevard.  The city’s goals are to foster sustainable economic growth in the area, and create a more livable downtown.  The plan will strengthen walkability and bikeability infrastructure, to encourage healthier, more active lifestyles.  Plans call for two-way cycle tracks in locations, and include roundabouts at some intersections – something many believe to be a safer and more efficient alternative to traditional traffic light intersections.

The city says support for the project has grown substantially over time.  Proponents say it will reconnect the city grid, bring the business district out of isolations, and strengthen the urban fabric by reconnecting once divided neighborhoods.  They believe it will improve traffic congestion, mobility and local access throughout the area.  It will bridge the gap between the city and one of its major attractions, the Strong Museum of Play, which lies just on the other side of the divide.  Advocates trust that the approximate nine acres of land that will be freed up will benefit the city economically, spurring mixed-use development and drawing residents to the more urban way of life and more livable downtown.

Additionally, Reconnect Rochester, a transportation advocacy group and major proponent, says the project will essentially pay for itself.  Lifecycle costs to maintain a state of good repair of the existing 1960s-era infrastructure are estimated between $19.1 and $26 million – approximately the same cost as the project itself.  Reconnect Rochester also sees real potential in the development of the reclaimed land to provide true connectivity for the city.

While we at Let’s Save Michigan are excited to see how this turns out, there are some Rochesterians out there who are not.  Inner Loop East opponents believe it is an expensive project the city doesn’t need and can’t afford, and that the money should be spent in wiser ways.  Some also believe that the economic development potential has been exaggerated.  Concerns have also surfaced that the project is a recipe for blight in a city with too many vacancies already.

The cost of the project is estimated to be $23.6 million, with the city responsible for $5.9 million. Work is expected to begin in the fall of 2014 and take two to three years to complete. As this project moves ahead, we hope it stays on the right track towards more sustainable and livable communities for all of Rochester.

 

Photo from the City of Rochester Preliminary Design Alignment document.