Opinion

The Divide: Governor Cuomo, Tear down that highway!

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The Divide: Governor Cuomo, Tear down that highway!

On March 19, Governor Cuomo announced a $1.8 billion plan to revitalize the South Bronx by ‘boulevardizing’ the Sheridan Expressway (Interstate 895). In January of this year, the Governor directed the New York State Department of Transportation to study options for replacing Interstate 81 in Syracuse with a “community grid” road system. In 2014, the City of Rochester began working on a project to transform the depressed (meaning below ground-level) Inner Loop into an at-grade road to encourage economic growth and a more livable downtown. And, in 2013, Governor Cuomo committed $10 million from the Buffalo Billions to help cover the cost of removing an elevated stretch of the Robert Moses Parkway in Niagara Falls so as to restore community access to the riverfront.

Well, Governor, it’s Albany’s turn. Tear down Interstate 787 and close the divide between downtown and access to the Hudson River waterfront.  

Interstate 787 is a mostly raised highway that cuts the City of Albany off from the Hudson River. The original plan for I-787 show it as a tree-lined boulevard, at ground level, with multiple access points to the river. However, as plans were made for the destruction of almost 100 acres of Albany neighborhoods to build the Empire State Plaza (the South Mall), the plans for I-787 changed from a boulevard to an elevated highway with direct motor vehicle access to the Empire State Plaza.

I-787 not only separates downtown Albany from the Hudson, it also separates neighborhoods like Mount Hope and the Ezra Prentice Homes in Albany’s South End from the city proper. The planners in the 1950s and ’60s, most notably Robert Moses, who recommended these Interstate highways be constructed through the hearts of urban centers had no foresight as to the destructive effects these highways would have on our cities. Their main concern was to build highway systems to move automobiles faster to and from cities to the newly developing suburbs.

Gov. Cuomo called Syracuse’s I-81 a “classic planning blunder.” He said the Bronx’ Sheridan Expressway was among the “major fumbles and errors” introduced by Robert Moses (The New York Times, March 19, 2017). Also, Gov. Cuomo, when speaking about the State’s investment in dismantling the Robert Moses Highway, stated that “an outdated impediment to the growth of the City of Niagara Falls, as well as tourism opportunities in the city’s urban core” will be corrected. The Governor could have replaced the references to I-81, I-895, the Inner Loop and the Robert Moses Highway with “Interstate 787” and all his criticisms of those highways would fit in perfectly with any discussion on the negative aspects of I-787.

Today’s urban planners are calling for the deconstruction of elevated Interstates and the construction of more city-friendly roadways. They cite economic development, revitalization of downtown, access to the waterfront, and improved health and safety of residents as the reasons for ‘boulevardizing’ Interstates. Studies have also found that grade-level roadways are more economical to keep up than elevated or depressed highways. The studies that were commissioned for the South Bronx, Rochester, Syracuse and Niagara Falls projects all pretty much agreed with what city planners are advocating for – the elimination of highways through our city centers and replacing them with more appropriate urban street grids.  

Like the above-referenced highways, the future of I-787 is the subject of a study. A couple of years ago, the Capital District Transportation Committee (CDTC) undertook a study on the future of I-787. While the release of the final report is behind schedule (the original target date was supposed to be in 2016), I have been informed by the CDTC that the report “is in development . . . we will probably be going to the public . . . in late May/June.” I will go out on a limb and say that the CDTC study will pretty much mirror the positive aspects of boulevardizing Interstates as reported in the studies for the other Interstates – economic development, revitalized downtown, access to the riverfront, etc.

Beyond the enhanced economic development aspects of deconstructing elevated highways, when discussing the proposed Sheridan Expressway project in the Bronx, Gov. Cuomo talked about the positive effects the project will have on the health and safety of the nearby residents. He proposed including a connection to the Hunts Point market so as to decrease the amount of truck traffic in the community. “It’s a line of trucks and it’s loud and it’s ugly,” Mr. Cuomo told the New York Times in a phone interview. The New York Times article also quoted officials as saying the trucks going to the Hunts Point market are in an area once known as “asthma alley.” This presents another parallel to I-787 and an environmental injustice community, like the South Bronx.

South Pearl Street, at I-787 Exit 2, is Albany’s “asthma alley.” The Ezra Prentice Homes are located at this junction of I-787 and South Pearl Street. And, as I wrote in an open letter to the DEC and DOT printed in The Alt last year, almost 50 percent of the households surveyed in Ezra Prentice reported at least one family member suffering from asthma. A truck count showed over 1,000 diesel-engine trucks pass through Ezra Prentice Homes every day. The residents of Ezra, like the residents in the South Bronx, are subjected to “a line of trucks and it’s loud and it’s ugly,” Governor.

So, Gov. Cuomo, give Albany the same consideration as Niagara Falls, Rochester, the South Bronx and Syracuse and tear down that highway (I-787). Construct a direct access ramp to the Port and the other industrial businesses along the Hudson. And boulevard the Interstate to not only help the revitalization of Albany’s downtown, but to improve and protect the health of the residents of Albany’s South End.    

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