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Is it time to start dismantling downtown freeways?

Nobody advocates doing away with the entire interstate highway system, but freeways that cut through downtowns often cause more harm than good.

We're coming to a point where many freeways are reaching the end of their 40- to 50-year useful lives. I-35 was built in the 1960s.

The last time I visited Boston, I got completely lost and had to ask a cop for directions. Even though I attended college there, the city had become unrecognizable — in a good way.

Instead of the deep shadows cast by dingy overhead freeways, there was sunlight bathing buildings and streets. The sky was visible, and no longer was every surface coated with the grime of auto emissions. 

The reason for this change was, of course, the Big Dig, a $14 billion project that transformed Boston’s Central Artery (I-93) into an underground tunnel. Boston residents I know who had been hypercritical of the supposed boondoggle had to admit that the absence of the giant highway improved the city.

“It created millions of dollars in real estate, reconnected the North End to the South End, cleaned up the city. It was all good,” says Phyllis Baumann, a longtime Bostonian.

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Other U.S. cities are contemplating taking matters a step further: Instead of hiding urban freeways from public view, they are talking about dismantling them. Elevated highways — or portions of them — have already been razed in San Francisco, Baltimore, New Haven and Providence. Groups in Dallas and St. Louis are pushing for their own freeway take-downs, and New Orleans is considering scrapping the Claiborne Expressway which divided black neighborhoods. New York City has on its agenda demolition of the Bronx’ Sheridan Expressway.

Twin Cities heresy?

I know. It sounds like heresy, especially here. After all, the Twin Cities only recently completed the reconstruction of the I-35 bridge (2008) and the re-engineering of the I-35-Crosstown Commons (2011).

But ever since Jane Jacobs, author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” stopped Robert Moses from building a freeway across Greenwich Village back in the 1960s, it’s been widely accepted that freeways aren’t exactly boons to cities. They rip apart neighborhoods, produce tons of pollution and noise and take land off the property tax rolls, forcing everybody else to pay more.

Some of the Twin Cities’ freeways are nonsensical; they could disappear without anybody missing them, as Bill Lindeke pointed out in a recent Blog Cabin post.

Also fueling the “junk the freeways” crusade is the increasing expense of repairing them. We’re coming to a point where many freeways are reaching the end of their 40- to 50-year useful lives. Both I-94 and I-35, for example, were built in the 1960s.

In its 2013 report card on America’s infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that bringing U.S. roads up to snuff would cost $170 billion a year, about $80 billion more a year than we’re spending. Even if city highways made up only a quarter of that, we’d be facing a punishing bill in an era when public funds are tight and revenues from gas taxes are dropping.

Downtown freeways wasteful?

Nobody is saying that we should do away with the entire interstate highway system. Obviously, it provides efficient car and truck travel from city to city. But freeways cutting through downtowns?

Norman Bel Geddes, perhaps the first to envision a network of grade-separated limited-access roads in his 1940 book “Magic Motorways,” objected to introducing such construction into city street grids. Even Eisenhower, the progenitor of the modern interstate system, was shocked when he learned that freeway construction in Washington, D.C., had him halted in a traffic jam. He thought the highways were to be built between cities not in them.

The presence of those vast swaths of concrete is more a result of cities’ financial limitations than anything else. In the 1920s and1930s, when cars started to clog streets, city officials appealed to their respective states to help pay for new roads. State engineers took over freeway planning, building wide highways regardless of the local topography.

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Highways became even more destructive to cities in the Eisenhower era, when the federal government provided 90 percent of every dollar spent, according to a paper (PDF) from Jeffrey R. Brown, Eric A. Morris, and Brian D. Taylor, three city planning academics. Conforming to federal standards, “the roads designed and built by the state highway departments were often large, elaborate affairs whose complex interchanges had outsized footprints that were difficult to shoehorn into existing, built-up areas.”

These days, public officials, transportation planners, traffic engineers and city residents are coming to see those highways as wastes of space that don’t do much to cut travel time. It has become an axiom of transportation planning — called “induced demand” — that new highways increase congestion by encouraging people to move further out to lower-density neighborhoods and to drive more than they otherwise would.

John O. Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee and now president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a nonprofit dedicated to, among other things, “turning highways into boulevards,” points out that “cars travel farther and farther between increasingly insignificant destinations.” He was talking about Detroit, but the observation could apply to almost any other city.

Norquist has hands-on experience with highway deconstruction. In 2003, he oversaw the demolition of Milwaukee’s mile-long Park East Freeway, which he described as basically “a long off-ramp” into downtown that was due for $80 million in repairs. Removing the structure cost only $25 million, reconnected local streets and opened up 26 acres of land for redevelopment. Manpower Worldwide, the placement firm, relocated its headquarters there, and a $54 million 30-story apartment complex has gone up.

Still, new construction has proceeded more slowly than Norquist had hoped. He blames the delay on labor interests and right-wing politicians opposed to tearing down the highway. They placed strict “social benefit” requirements on any new development; for example, incoming companies must pay at least $2 over the minimum wage, use union labor and so on. (The Great Recession probably played a role, too.) “There’s still a lot of empty land,” he says. 

Success stories

A more successful project perhaps has been San Francisco’s demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway after it was partially destroyed by the 1989 earthquake. Removing the freeway opened the city to the waterfront. The double-decker freeway was replaced with a tree-lined boulevard that has attracted 3,000 housing units and thousands of square feet of office space, and sent the value of nearby waterfront property rising by some 300 percent.

Further afield is the Cheonggyecheon elevated freeway in Seoul, South Korea. In 2003, the city demolished the roadway and restored the stream that had been flowing beneath it. Now it’s a 3.6-mile long linear park with two-lane one-way streets one either side. Previously, the roadway carried 168,000 cars a day. Soon after opening, the park attracted 90,000 visitors a day; property values in the area rose by 30 percent.

And what of the hapless car commuter?

Cities that have done away with a freeway or two have found to their amazement that the much-feared Carmageddon never materialized. Conventional urban street grids distributed traffic pretty well, and drivers cleverly found alternative paths to their destinations. Beefing up public transit simultaneously helps. Seoul added bus rapid transit to ease some of the pressure. 

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I assumed that proposing a tear-down of any portion of a federal roadway would be near impossible, but Norquist says that he found surprisingly few obstacles. “You have to petition the government to delist the road,” he says. “There was talk that we would have to pay something back to the federal government, but we didn’t.”

Norquist’s parents lived in St. Paul, and he is not reluctant to say that the Twin Cities have “way too many freeways.”

That I-94 cuts downtown St. Paul off from the Capitol is the loss of a major asset. Without it, all those government workers could be shopping and eating lunch downtown. But he admits that getting rid of a highway connecting two cities and sitting in a major trench would be near impossible. He instead suggests going for the low-hanging fruit that would free up land and increase connectivity. Long off-ramps may be the best candidates.

I called around to Minneapolis and St. Paul and found that nobody knew of any plans to demolish freeways — or pieces of them — here. Given the cost of shoring them up, however, maybe someone should start thinking about it.